Poetry - Dropping Balm, The Absinthe Literary Review

The Dead
A poem by Michael Martin

A graveyard in my childhood was a place for games.
A place where boys and girls gathered at dusk to hide 
And seek behind mausoleums and monuments,
Under bushes and in the branches of white pines.
The atmosphere of death and mysteries of graves 
Gave our games an excitement, an anxiety
Even, as we explored our genius for a deep
Human capacity to imagine evil.
The groundskeeper stumbled upon us as we played,
But in our state we thought it was an angry ghost
Who chased us over graves and crumbling pavement.
We jumped the iron fence and tore our clothes or worse,
Our skin, on the menacing teeth of the pickets.
My brother John opened his knee as he jumped down.
We washed away the streaming blood and saw the white
Gristle, the pink meat of his flesh, black flecks of iron. 

After the football game we parked beneath the willows at Old Redford Cemetery. It was a safe place to party, outside the concerns of the police and beyond the hearing of nosy neighbors. Kidneys bursting with Stroh’s, boys pissed against headstones. We swung from the arms of marble crosses and sat cavalier on monuments like gods. The girls huddled in a circle close to the trees. They laughed about stupid boys and flicked ashes from their menthol cigarettes. They wrapped close their short jackets, protecting themselves from the October wind. But one girl sat in a car and cried: Carol Angellini, who’d buried her mom in the spring. Both lay beyond our consideration, immortal as we were.

The most symbolic act of my life

she and I make love
on a balmy All Souls Day
beneath a catalpa tree
scythe-head seedpods
rattle in the breeze

we crouch behind a headstone
and she lowers her sex upon me
the moon rises full and red
the sun falls pale to the ground

I am twenty-eight years old
the happiest man in the graveyard

I made it to Lisa’s graveside
twenty years after the funeral
I did not chance to attend,
following a day of landscaping,
more gravedigger than grave.
Two decades of guilt and avoidance
had dulled the face of the headstone
and its chiseled Roman script.
Exhausted from wrestling trees,
I slept there until friends arrived:
Ken, Danny and Lou 
(whose son Ted lies nearby—
patron saint of fallen wires).
Then Terry, Julie and Sara came,
the dearly beloved
brother, sister-in-law and niece
of a girl who’d slept her 
death in a running car.
We arranged ourselves
in a circle, an ellipse really,
around her silent hill; 
improvised a make-shift requiem
characterized by guitar mass psalms,
modern poetry
and unfamiliar prayers.
Sticks of incense
thrust from the ground
like burning flowers.
The angel of death
did not free us from our shame,
but allowed us to return,
each to his difficult life.


© 2003 Michael Martin

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