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

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.