Woodlawn Cemetery


Prelude

so many stories
some I understand and some I guess
stories of death and stained glass
stories lurking in birdsongs and buttercups

it is emphatically spring
and stories will not wait the telling
nor bide the listening
the agitated grass will speak
my voice is not needed
nor my attention either
but it is emphatically spring
and I am welcomed
and so are you


I

Once tokens of bitter sorrow,
these marble stones that strew
the hilltop meadow now shelter
the careless bindweed and honeysuckle.

Along the meadow's edge,
a lightning riven beech,
places leaves where it can,
their copper color
incongruous, deep and sudden
against its silver bark.
From it moves a mockingbird.
Unseen its song darts among the trees
and along the stones, changing,
lingering, now here, now there,
sometimes answered, distantly.

Then I see it, singing into the ear of a stone angel.
The statue's mossy neck bends,
as it has always bent, in grief.
Unmoving and unremitting in sorrow
it does not listen it, does not hear
that those for whom it grieves
have become the mockingbird's song.


II

Irene Castle danced with Vernon.
Every girl wanted hair like hers.
Every boy wanted a girl like his.
  They did the Texas Tommy
   the Innovation
     the Castle Walk
and everybody did it with them.

Then he died,
her love, her partner--killed
in the Great War.
Her lithe dancer's body
sits naked and mournful
at his grave--
their grave.

The autumn wind
cannot stir her brazen hair.
But that body, graceful and pure
cannot be stilled.
In an instant she will rise and
the dance will go on.


III

Donatello would, of course, have done it better
but the stone portraits of three young boys,
killed together in a storm, moves us anyway.
Despite the doggerel engraved in the granite an inkling of
tragedy echoes down a century of time to make this
overcarved and prolix monument a clot of sadness.
The verse, with its facile rhymes, simple, brittle and cold,
is a skin of ice covering the deep wellsprings of sorrow,
a mask over a memory of grief-contorted faces turned away
in confusion and shame. And like a mask
it hides truth and traps the moment,
embedding it like a scorpion in amber.

The architecture of mourning
need not be art, need not be sincere.
It need only be there at the nexus
of our most vivid attention,
at the mind's pivot,
the heart's lost center.


IV

In all this wide cemetery full of
angels, sphinxes and saints
these are the only ones with warm ears.
St. Anthony's woolen cap might have come off
a worker riding home on the subway.
Joseph and baby Jesus have theirs tied under their chins.
All of them red and bright on their gray marble heads.
Did Grandma knit them at the behest of a small child
who touched the cold stone and cried?
This act of strange and immeasurable kindness reaches out
to those beyond life, beyond reach and finds, instead, us,
who see it and, in this cold winter, smile.


V

"Mother" it says
equatorially
in grotesque
gothic letters
on this flesh-colored
granite globe
atop a set of
miniature columns.
Drawn to it by the
glint of sun off
its perfectly round
polished surface
I stand wondering
which is more
appropriate--
the white lump
of birdshit at its
north pole or
elegant carpet of
magnolia petals
and violets at its feet.


VI

The giant linden tree is blooming and its potent
fragrance spreads transformation on the breeze.
Two sphinxes from the Woolworth tomb
come padding over to sit in the shade-cool grass;
one trades jokes with a bronze figure of Sorrow;
several angels having flapped in from somewhere
are perched serenely in the high boughs;
six stone St. Francises drop by to talk with the birds.
All of them step carefully around the nectar drunk bees
that have fallen in a stupor to the ground.

Soon, I fear, the blossoms will go to seed,
the fragrance will fade, stone will be stone,
bronze will be hard and cold, the trees will be only trees.
Everything will be as it was,
until next year.


VII

Inside a Weeping Beech

This room of green breathes me in.
   Cupped within the tree's hanging boughs
   sealed from sun and sky
     I become wooden branches, tendriled and whipping.
     I become a leaf, flipped by wind.
     I become dirt, silent, fecund and fathomed.
     I become me.
Space infinite is enclosed in these whispering walls


VIII

how brilliant the blue
between the dark green needles
how white the clouds

the pooled scent of resin shimmers through this quiet space
whose peace is underlined by the windsound of pines

a heavy wooden gate
leads to a limestone chapel and its tiny cloister
these buildings, this place
shed grief as a swan does lakewater
why does no sorrow cling here
is it the warm yellow of the limestone
the padded slipperiness of fallen pine needles
the shade and soft air

through some alchemy
of design and nature
death abides here
and with it
life
entwined as comfortably and as naturally
as the branches are with their scent
as the sunlight is with the shade
as I am with a chipmunk sunning itself on a rock