Poems in Progress: Elemental
Sir Thomas Browne, Hydrotaphia or Urne Buriall, 1658
This seems a good time to be thinking about elegies. My mother died in 2011. I was in Romania. Strangely, that day I'd gone to a graveyard I'd visited several years before. I wanted to check a quotation I thought I remembered from one of the tombstones in the German cementary in Sighisoara, birthplace of Count Dracula. When I arrived back in Borsec, the dilapidated Transylvanian village where I was staying on a writing residency, I heard about my mother's death.
Since then I've been working on and off on Elemental, a collection of poems that starts with my mother's death, and moves on to consider loss more generally. In Borsec, I'd been working on the Hotel Transylvania sequence which plays variations on the sonnet in tighter or looser ways, and which became part of the Pilgrim Tongues book featured elsewhere on the website.
Here the opening poem of Elemental echoes the sonnet form to build a longer sequence.
In Transylvania when I got that call
– had been that day to Sighisoara, drawn
to that famous undead batman’s place of birth.
Think: the Saxon cemetery high up the hill.
Carved gothically upon one stone, I’d seen
Ruhen in fremder Erde! Written it down.
Lie still in foreign soil – but you never can:
(stone blunts, moss overwrites your name)
the earth remains cold and strange.
As do you. Whoever you were, laid low
in the lie of the land, you are now (whatever now might mean)
your own remains – Just let the world, its weather,
drain right through your tongue, your ribs,
whatever stubbornly persists of you.
Up here, we are all overwritten with rain.
Names blunt. Down there, bones do too,
as they acquaint themselves with fault and aquifer,
maybe to discover they’ve finally found their level,
worked on darkly in the water table,
worn and wearing through those other scribbles
written in the water’s cursives,
its accommodations with gravity, geology,
the terrain’s almighty sloth. Post humus:
they’ve gone beyond mere ground. Now who could tell
just what is rain and what it is that comes to rest
at that watershed where land and weather shift?
Between headstones and puddles – what will you later find
in that shimmering absence where sun now burns off mist?
We’ve all been sieved by weather, land,
but now it seems one’s bones might pan
for flecks of something bright to stick
between the breastbone and the floating rib.
Count yourself lucky, can you, through the zero
of this ground? Be less than the gravedigger’s distant grunt?
Just something seeping, molecule by molecule,
ghost-borne through lime, past worm, through strange soil,
through walls tabled into water, a name glossed
across the mahogany of a dull séance. Grund.
Ground. And the mills of God grind exceeding small.
The old grind that did for you. (Now you’re hallowed,
hollowed out, just like the ground.) And that’ll do.
Will do for me what did for you. Will do for all.
“and when the whirlewind hath blown the dust of the Churchyard into the Church…” John Donne, Sermons
What we believed for years, it’s not quite true:
this household dust’s not just flaked skin,
dead cells you’ve sloughed, the little bits of you
that persist to cloud your reflection on the glass.
When he preached, John Donne still dwelt on bodies
(the ladies in St Paul’s all hats, tight bodices,
hips and swelling décolletage, so soon unstuck).
He saw how you, your neighbour’s skin, might fly
– those motes now caught upon a beam of sun –
into another’s mouth, or lung, or eye.
Forget motes. Your skin and sweat are meat and drink.
Your bed’s a megalopolis of mites. Think
shower, sink: drains clogged. Black mushrooms. Hair.
That’s you. That’s all your family, down there.