Poetry Issue #20

Office of the Dead

By Peter Vanderberg

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.
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*Image: “Rudderless” by Mandy Coppes-Martin, 119″ x 52″ Drawing in Raw Silk


Peter Vanderberg

Featured Poet


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

watching              birds.

Cardinal,    red :: morning :: heart

Blue jay,     blue-gray :: longing :: __________

sun-shower —

That is not what it is.

Every life needs pruning.

The maple’s phantom limbs fall all around us.




Our children collect           dead branches,

night’s windfall.

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 —

bay snails


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

spirit         ways

create                     days           in


Have you entered the source of the sea?



must follow


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 dead.
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 one-more-drink-for-his-sake.

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.


refracts memory.

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

By Peter Vanderberg

Peter Vanderberg is the founding editor of Ghostbird Press. He served in the US Navy from 1999 – 2003 and received a MFA from CUNY Queens College. His work has appeared in CURA, Harpoon Review, Manhattanville Review, LUMINA, and in collaboration with his brother James’s paintings in their book,Weather-Eye. His chapbook Crossing Pleasant Lake has just been released by Red Bird Chapbooks. He teaches at St. John’s Preparatory School and Hofstra University.