at the grave of Buland al-Haidari
Highgate Cemetery, London
We are used to blurriness here
in the temperate regions.
When the air is too clear, I walk like a drunk,
hesitating & veering around sharp-edged shadows
that come alive when they move.
Too bald a truth appalls us.
I can’t remember the last time I spoke
unironically of love. It’s best to be circumspect.
We are used to being watched by paraplegic angels
over closed-circuit TV.
Our children play hangman with blackboard and chalk.
Listen, if we hate poets here, it’s only because
they brandish empty wash tubs instead of roses
& remind us we’re all in exile from our dreams.
What did the Victorians know that we have forgotten? That sorrow is a strong medicine with dangerous side-effects. That all our crops are grown in linear graves. That the angels’ only super-power is empathy. That ruins can be beautiful because they are free of their original purpose. That a camera can impart something like second sight. That the devil too quotes scripture. That sex is inherently scandalous. That bad air can kill you & pine-scented air can prolong life. That the grave is a kind of well that never runs dry.
In this cemetery, the English ivy does all the work of grief, circling, knotting, twisting, persistent as a scavenger. It listens, a crowd of one, hanging on every engraved word. As vines reach the sky, their five-lobed leaves give way to a simpler shape, a sort of teardrop, & the umbels drip nectar. The fact that the berries are poisonous to humans is incidental, I’m sure, & the plant can’t help how invasive it’s become overseas, pulling down natives with no natural defenses against such clinging. Bindwood, they call it here. Lovestone. Grief’s greenest eraser, wearing holes in every last will & testament & scrawling in the breach its own cursive signature.
Six fresh oranges
in the short grass
on the grave of the founder
of an import/export company,
born in Aleppo.
A toddler strains against
his mother’s grip: Ball!
How to explain
Road, the souk,
hospitality of merchants?
How to explain torture,
a feast of agonies called
the magic carpet?
A cricket plays his hit single.
In Syria, they say
a narrow spot can contain
a thousand friends.
How does one lay out a dog for burial?
Do it wrong and its ghost will circle
endlessly, unable to lie down.
Live dogs aren’t permitted in the cemetery.
We look for their stone snouts among the angels.
Has anyone considered that dogs may not want us
with them in heaven?
That we would frighten the wolves?
A cemetery is the last refuge of invisible friends.
Here’s someone with a map to celebrity gravesites.
Trees at Highgate need not fear the lifted hind leg.
They go wild, permitted
every extravagance except death.
I write these notes six weeks later
in a silence greater than any in all London,
sitting in the darkness,
trusting my faithful pen to find the way.
My too-grave stone cannot stand.
Its bull’s-eye cross is tired of target duty.
Stones are such somnolent creatures —
they know nothing of the pleasures of flight.
It could topple at any time, in any wind.
There’s no telling which breath will be its last.
It rides the turf like the ship at Sutton Hoo,
waiting for the sky to cave in.
I thought I was rid of such becalming
when I traded my corpse for fire’s fey wings.
The stone idols of our ancestors
lie face-down across the graves
they were made to watch over.
Lips worn whistle-thin
by the corrosive breath of engines
seek relief in the soil, where perhaps
the live wires of nematodes
might revive them, or ivy cover them
with feathers that actually move.
Only a few feet down the crowd awaits,
growing more anonymous by the year.
Perhaps they can reach those winter trees
through dissolution, like stalactites.
They shape the darkness
in their own image: a mask of dirt,
a vessel, a full breast.
Magpies have been observed engaging in elaborate social rituals, possibly including the expression of grief.
So those are magpies!
They do look acquisitive.
They hover over
the graves like eyebrows
or second thoughts, tails
held decorously aloft.
Each time I raise the camera
they take flight—proof
they’re not spirits
but among the quick.
They are, in their black-
&-white way, shiny.
They remind me of
our shared mission:
to rob the dead.
Their chatter offers
a refuge from this refuge
where even the weed
eater keens, though
among their own kind,
blessed with sufficient wit
to comprehend loss,
they’re said to indulge
in rituals of grief.
I try counting them:
one, one, one.
At some point in every horror film
comes the line: It’s alive!
Is this the way the dead feel
when we disturb their rest with
our roots & our pickaxes, our squirming
purple larvae & our blind snouts?
We are the zero in their bones,
that slick thick marrow, mother
of blood. We are their unlucky
rabbits’ feet, the throw of their dice.
We creep & crawl. We erupt,
dangerous as magma.
Someday the sun will bring us
all together, living & dead, in one
molten paroxysm, but until then we can meet
only in the briefest of spasms, & are listed
together in the credits for moan, rattle
& almost imperceptible sigh.
How many miles into the earth
would we have to dig to find true stillness,
free from all taint of life?
Some bacteria can thrive solely
on the energy from radioactive decay,
know nothing of oxygen, & persist
as a single-species ecosystem,
alone in their subterranean cosmos.
We’ve come to learn a full half
of the total mass of life on earth
dwells underground or beneath
the ocean floor. So thoroughly have
we infected the planet, it might
never be rid of us, the poor thing,
burdened as it is with a barren mate
that remains untainted by its contagion,
circling at a safe distance
& summoning with a regular tug
that we like to think is somehow
meant for us.
It’s always a fun challenge to try to work such utterly geeky material into a poem. The bacteria mentioned is Desulforudis audaxviator — see “Real Life Journey To The Center Of The Earth Finds First Ecosystem With A Single Species” in Science 2.0. (Be sure to click on the photo if you can’t read the inscription on the gravestone.)