Here’s the thing about my small folder of poems about death. Having more than one poem about death is like getting a bag of zucchini from your neighbor—you don’t know what to do with an overload. (I’m just realizing this very second that owning, not to mention labeling, a small folder of poems about death is not entirely sane.)
Lucky for me, today is the Mexican holiday Dia de Muertos, a day to honor the dead, and the Catholic holiday of All Souls Day, a day to pray for the dead, and my Poem Elf day to de-clutter my files and clutter up my favorite cemetery.
I left Thom Gunn’s (1929-2004) “The Reassurance” by the grave of someone named Emily Greer.
There is probably no one left who remembers Miss Emily. I hope this is an accurate assessment of her character:
How like you to be kind
Seeking to reassure
It would be a fine epitaph for anyone.
At a grander grave I left another poem that speaks of the workings of grief, “Mourners” by Ted Kooser (1939–)
Death brings a heightened tenderness to survivors that Kooser captures beautifully:
peering into each other’s faces,
slow to let go of each other’s hands
Most of the graves in this cemetery are too old to be visited by any living person, but I did find one with two recently dead mums decorating it. Near it I left Natasha Trethewey’s “After Your Death.”
How beautifully she captures the sad work of clearing out a parent’s home after death
another space emptied by loss
Tomorrow the bowl I have yet to fill.
No Day of the Dead poem-elf post would be complete with my old favorite, Jane Kenyon (1947-1995), who died young and wrote often about death. I left her “Notes from the Other Side” on the tomb of a member of the Sly family, long gone.
Kenyon’s vision of heaven is wry —
no bad books, no plastic,
no insurance premiums
–but surely intended to comfort those she would leave behind–
Our calm hearts strike only the hour,
and God, as promised, proves
to be mercy clothed in light.
“I needed to talk to my sister,” by Grace Paley (1922-2007), another one of my favorites, graced this stone angel:
Paley has a wondrous way of burying pain under humor, thank goodness, because this scenario is too painful for me to contemplate.
One more picture because I like the look of yearning on the angel holding the poem:
A tombstone engraved “Love” needed a poem, so there I left “On the Death of Friends in Childhood” by Donald Justice (1925-2004).
I can’t read this without thinking of the survivors of Sandy Hook, years and years from their loss:
Now that I’ve emptied my folder, I’ve flooded my day with thoughts of those I’ve lost and of those who have lost so many more than I.