*Image: “Rudderless” by Mandy Coppes-Martin, 119″ x 52″ Drawing in Raw Silk
Office of the Dead
Everything you say is misleading –
unless you list every possible experience
& say: That is not what it is.
— Thomas Merton
The illumination for Office of the Dead
baffles scholars: Two corpses share a grave
while bones lie scattered
among gravedigger’s tools.
Two monks, in corpse-brown robes,
vigil the dead, reading scripture.
A third monk draped in sky-blue
gestures toward the unsearchable.
My son thinks the dead
must have been happy twins
because their faces still grin.
Three living & three dead.
The blank tablet waits for inscription
as corpses wait for life.
Maple leaves turn in wind
like tarot cards
signing death :: change :: repeat —
Hurricane season ripens
with the next full moon.
My Grandfather passed (holy) hours
on the porch
Cardinal, red :: morning :: heart
Blue jay, blue-gray :: longing :: __________
That is not what it is.
Every life needs pruning.
The maple’s phantom limbs fall all around us.
Our children collect dead branches,
Their hiding places remind me
what it felt like to live forever.
The rhododendron time machine
turns my son & daughter into parents.
The maple’s phantom limbs fall all around them.
I’ve never seen a ghost,
but twice my grandmother
felt there with us:
in the living room,
arranging dried hydrangea blossoms,
& again in the den,
her absence watching a soap opera.
Along the storm-cracked walk
I offer your absence
clamshell fragments, dry reeds, gull feathers.
The dune-fence creaks in light wind,
same as those driftwood days
we found at the ocean.
My prayer to impermanence
needs no sign to open
& no sign will bring its close.
Sitting on a broken bench, I am lulled
by the cyclical nature of Nature.
ebb tide —
run for their lives
Dreaming back to life, my Grandfather trembles,
twice reaching out with his right hand. Awake,
he chokes to tell me something I can’t understand:
remember more give me back
There is a card by his bed that offers possible
states of being. One who can not speak
points to the appropriate face that means:
I feel [thirsty] [angry] [afraid] [frustrated] [sad]
Valid options for one in critical condition. But what about:
[turn my bed so I can watch the snow] or
[ready to go home even if it kills me]?
& what would the caricature look like that means:
[I feel tricked by the cyclical nature of Nature] or [lost in memories, leave me here]?
Watching, the hours do not pass,
the shadow doesn’t slide. Look away
& the dark has touched another bird,
forever calling a silent alarm.
Or does it summon its mate
to the next season, & us
to the next hour of the day?
My Grandmother believes
her husband is calling her
to the other side.
A cricket follows, chirping
through every room of the house.
Light bulbs keep burning out —
one by one the rooms darken.
This morning we practice departures —
slipping under ourselves:
gates we inhabit between silences.
My son is reluctant to let go.
I whisper, Close your eyes.
Go to sleep. He trusts
that I know what consciousness melts into,
but my Grandfather’s last breaths
still sound an ocean in my ears.
Have you entered the source of the sea?
I place my hand over my mouth.
I need a new prayer.
A prayer without words.
What did it feel like to live forever?
I wake & wash my face
of night’s remnants, having fallen
asleep under the quilted dread of death,
of possible erasure, my Grandfather’s
labored breath, Grandmother’s last
tortured litany: OhLordOhLordOhLord.
Some keep things in place:
pills lined in the cabinet, glasses
folded on the book half read.
Others give away the rusty tools of grief.
My prayer to impermanence is wordless.
I practice patterns: boil pasta on Sunday,
drink coffee over cross-words,
say Can’t means won’t whenever I can.
I will write
to know God
& remember more
Give me back
create days in
Have you entered the source of the sea?
The crowd thought they heard thunder
but others thought
an angel had spoken
When our daughter & son have had a long day,
meaning neither obeyed
when they were lain in their beds & told,
sleep now for a little while;
then my wife has had no hour
to walk the rooms in her mind
of our one-day house by the sea
where east windows have no blinds
& the bedroom balcony is stained with wine.
Long days beg
not to end:
I want the blue bear.
Leave the light on a little bit.
Please Sing Row-Row.
My wife turns a few pages into sleep.
Her breath slowly sweeps across the snows
of dreaming. My mind pours vaporous
downstairs to test each door & window latch.
Reality becomes transparent. This night,
with everyone home & asleep
behind locked doors, is fraught
with sirens & rain & empty beds.
Each night buries another,
until we lose even the memory
of this one night,
long, quiet & slept through,
as if it were
& always could be our own.
Goodnight book on the shelf half-read.
Goodnight laughter of the gone in my head.
Goodnight drawer full of his socks.
Goodnight broken clocks.
Goodnight rusted-shut tool box.
Goodnight questions from my daughter.
Goodnight water poured into water.
Goodnight door that closes on its own.
Goodnight remnant self of tooth & bone.
Goodnight condolences at the wake.
Goodnight picture on the wall.
Goodnight fading whispers down the hall.
Forgive me. Call the Sin-eater.
It’s been the rest of my life
since my last confession.
The goat will carry on itself
all their sins to a remote place
In our old pub, prop a snapshot
ringed with bourbon.
Let the mourners stumble away
slurring, Timor mortis conturbat me.
The sin-eater takes ale & cake,
seasoned with soul-filth & trespass,
bloated with the Devil’s portion.
Save the plot for yourself,
let them bury me at sea.
Searching for signs,
I doubt what binds
even day to night.
In the absence of voice
silence shapes response.
Winter, driving Ocean Parkway —
glimpse of sea-glare
renders the visible invisible.
The Seaward Road ends in glint.
Sun signatures haunt
everywhere I look.
Timor mortis conturbat me.
*Note from the editor: the fifth, tenth and eleventh sections of this poem previously appeared in Assisi and 5×5