I should have been a file clerk. I have files and files of poems categorized by seasons and topics and OTHER. The ‘other’ file is particularly fat. But second in size is my file on death. You never know when you need some insight on death and dying.
Today’s poetic excerpt, “If You Knew,” is by Ellen Bass, from The Human Line. In her poem, Bass explores that old question, If you knew that today was your last day on Earth, how would you spend your day?
Her first stanza reads: What if you knew you’d be the last / to touch someone? / If you were taking tickets, for example, / at the theater, tearing them, / giving back the ragged stubs, / you might take care to touch that palm, / brush your fingertips / along the life line’s crease.”
Bass continues with a number of examples, but the last stanza goes straight to my gut and twines about my entrails: How close does the dragon’s spume / have to come? How wide does the crack / in heaven have to split? / What would people look like / if we could see them as they are, / soaked in honey, stung and swollen, reckless, pinned against time?
I love “swollen, reckless, pinned against time.”
- Write an “if I knew” poem. Or…
- Write a short deathbed scene. Point of view could be the person dying or that of an observer. It might be more fun to have multiple observers, each with his own thoughts – thoughts that reveal something of themselves.
I’m a fan of cemeteries. I love to visit. I’ve never seen a cemetery that I didn’t like. This week I spent some time in the Silver Cliff and the Assumption cemeteries. They are adjacent and both are high, wide and lonesome. They are in stark contrast to London’s Highgate Cemetery which is a Grade I listed site on the English Heritage Register. Overgrown and Gothic in the extreme, Highgate’s Victorian cemetery would be a great setting for a vampire movie. I love the density. The lying shoulder to shoulder… chatting the night away – the vegetation sheltering me from the damp and cold. And in the fall, blackberries by the bushel. Fat and juicy – life after death.
When we lived in London full-time, we would often walk over to the cemetery. But closer to home, we lived adjacent to Queen’s Wood – known in centuries past as “Churchyard Bottom Wood.” Formerly, going back to being listed in the Domesday Book (1086), the wood was part of the Forest of Middlesex. Queen’s Wood too is a cemetery in that archeologists have excavated pits of human bones said to be those of bubonic plague victims buried in 1665.
I used to cut through the woods daily on my way to Highgate Tube Station. Doing so I’d pass a circle of 13 ancient oaks, said to be a ceremonial site of some local druids. No… I didn’t take part, but now I regret that I didn’t.
In contrast to the crawling green of London’s cemeteries, Custer County’s cemeteries are decidedly barren. In the distance the Wet Mountains to the east and the Sangres to the west. The green valley lies between. The cemeteries are lower than the foothills but higher than the Valley floor. Talk about elbow room! The graves are dispersed – At one time, maybe during boom-town, mining town times – during the early 1880s, the graves were more densely packed, but time has taken its toll on the grave stones, and now it is a fair distance from family plot to family plot. There can’t be a lot of conversing going on. The wind would drive me crazy. And the tumbleweed.
Of the two cemeteries, I like Assumption best. It is better cared for and more to my way of thinking. My way of thinking is grounded in Russian and Mexican cemeteries where visiting and sitting are an integral part of the experience. Visit a Russian cemetery and each family plot has a small table and two small benches. When you visit, you take vodka and food. You sit; you reminisce; you eat; you toast the departed; and as you say your good-byes you leave a shot of vodka and a snack for the departed.
Mexican cemeteries are similar in that they are also a place to visit. They too are more personal. The tombstone is there but also … the family has left mementos. As an example, I give you two family plots in the Assumption Cemetery. The plots lie side by side. In one plot we have a bowling ball, an American flag, a teapot full of artificial flowers, an eagle, a cross, a child in the arms of an angel, and a garden gnome riding a turtle. Wonderful!
And in the adjoining plot, we have a yellow plastic hard hat, a dog, a tank, a fish, a boat, a quail, a cross, praying hands, a stuffed animal, a doll, a duck with wings on bouncy wires, and a welcome sign. I feel welcome. I wish the coffee were on the back burner.
I read the grave stones. I marvel at the babies – dead at birth – dead at four months and five days. I think of Emma Schneider, daughter of MJ & K. Schneider, died Aug. 27, 1880, 12 years, 3 months, and 19 days. “Earth has one pure spirit less; Heaven one inmate more.”
Who were these people who counted their days on Earth?
Should we not?