A Word from Death during the Pandemic
by Deborah Gorlin
These days when I feel distanced
from ceremonies in honor of my undoings,
a memory arises unbidden, of a cliffside
funeral in a tiny village, one of five, linked
by rocky paths through terraced hills,
where people, cheek by jowl, live in pastel
houses stacked like stucco puppies
or snaggle-tooth ziggurats, and comprise
a sweet density, pressed as a corsage
in my big book. Now the name comes
to me, Vernazza! Cinque Terre! A grandmother.
All her relations, abled to gather there, a silk scarf
wreathed round the bed as I blued her body to match
the harbor, clayed her limbs. They caressed
her so lovingly that I was touched. I’m afraid,
not with my help, was she washed, dressed
and arranged openly in a coffin, propped
upon pillowed cushions, and placed within
a snow-globed hatchback, no Cadillac,
purposed as a hearse, small enough
for the single cobblestone street.
Pedestrians, locals and tourists, hung
curbside, leaned against buildings, shopkeepers
stepped out their doors, to watch silently,
see inside the car as it drove uphill to the ancient
cemetery, to allow the cortege to pass, led
by the priest, as mourners processed behind,
shoulder to shoulder, in rows of no more
than four, five, maybe, six, if there were
children, some holding hands, others arm-
in-arm, their eyes faraway, or cast downward.
I could smell the fresh grave up ahead, awaiting
us, the tang of its historical soil, warm as that August
morning, oiled with uncured olives, bitter
to the tongue, purpled with grapes, spiked
garlic. All those briny marine, mineral seepages,
fish bones, anchovies, oyster shells,
limestone and shale, the taste like licking rocks:
the terroir of the region, the land of these
particular dead. By recalling these pleasures,
I mean no disrespect. Please forgive
me; I am not at my best. Let us hope for better
times when as a more gracious host than now
I may invite you to my long commensal
table, for all of us to break bread.
* Writing Prompt: Confront a fear, phobia, or anxiety, whether it be death, disease, failure, flying (you name it!), by writing empathically from its point of view, humanizing its power over you.
Deborah Gorlin is the author of two books of poems, Bodily Course (White Pine Poetry Press Prize) and Life of the Garment (Bauhan Publishing), winner of the 2014 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize. Emeritus co-director of the Writing Program at Hampshire College, she served for many years as a poetry editor at The Massachusetts Review.