Curating the Dead

This entry is part 10 of 20 in the series Highgate Cemetery Poems


Broken-nosed cherub

They were the grinning stars
of our childhood museum,
looming above the conches
& fossil ferns, the brain coral
& the blue & green glass bottles
that once held medicine.
We’d found them in the woods
not far from the houses,
their other bones littered about,
but it was only them we carried
home, those skulls: two cows & a mule.
Our elderly neighbor remembered
the mule’s name: Charlie.
Some of the teeth were loose
& soon went missing,
like strip-mined mountains.

We didn’t think about their deaths
or even what they’d been
before, as working livestock;
they were still live enough for us.
The zigzag sutures where
the parts of the skull fit together
made them self-evidently whole
& perfect, & the way the lower jaws
hinged behind the empty eyes
inspired awe. Every kid,
no matter how bored, would stop,
lift the mule’s top jaw
& make him talk.


This entry is part 11 of 20 in the series Highgate Cemetery Poems


Faceless statue

When a relationship dies, what happens
to the orphaned plus sign?
Might it live on as a cemetery cross
marking some otherwise dubious grave?
At one time it could’ve been reborn as
a TV antenna mast or the minimal
skeleton of a scarecrow. Now
even crossroads seem archaic,
& a crucifix is a piece of jewelry
to finger in times of stress,
finger & twirl on its chain
around the neck — a thing humans wear
instead of a bell.
In extreme cases, the plus sign
can lose its vertical axis
& merge with the horizon,
beyond which, as we know,
there’s nothing but subtraction.

Among the Brambles

This entry is part 12 of 20 in the series Highgate Cemetery Poems


Brambly grave

Working through a black-
berry patch, you learn
a new way to move, step
high & slow as a heron,
pivot to trample back-
wards in your big boots,
& lean nimble as a lover
into the fiercest thorns
to get free. These are
not skills of widespread
applicability. But one
day when the sweat dries
& the mosquito’s skirl
dwindles to a soft wind
in the inner ear, you may
find yourself stretching,
stretching, stretching for
that last sweet berry
& wondering why in hell
your hand won’t move.

Heat Indices

This entry is part 13 of 20 in the series Highgate Cemetery Poems


Sad broken angel

Bombs go off right across the world
from where I live, among a people who
look like me. This is news because
they are not at war — or at least,
not very much — & because they look
just like me. Meanwhile in America
we are blowing up mountains
& burning their black hearts to keep cool.
Meanwhile in America we are setting off
three & a half million pounds of explosives
every day in this undeclared war
against ourselves. This is not news because
it happens every day & is therefore
nothing new; because there is no easy-
to-tar enemy except perhaps for
the black-hearted mountains;
& because the people who die from it
die slowly & unspectacularly,
& are too often guilty of being poor.
Meanwhile in America it is hot
& getting hotter, & this is news
because it keeps us indoors, glued
to the news or at least to the sweat-
sticky couch. Meanwhile in America
the news anchors make a show
of indignation at the sun, righteous
& well-coiffed as fallen angels, &
never speculate about why we might
really be so hot, never mention
that we are blowing up mountains
& burning their black hearts to keep cool.


Note: I don’t mean to minimize the horror of the events in Norway, which now seem actually to be more about the massacre on the island than the initial bomb blasts. Every violent death, especially the death of a child, is a tragedy regardless of where in the world it happens — even schoolchildren in Appalachia who get brain tumors from having the misfortune of living too close to coal processing plants.

Grief Bacon

This entry is part 14 of 20 in the series Highgate Cemetery Poems


Split gravestone

Kummerspeck (German) Excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally, grief bacon.
15 Wonderful Words With No English Equivalent

Strip of blubber
sputtering on
high heat,
red stripe
that whispers
to the whip,
curling like
a tongue
at touch of
something bitter,
& shriveling like
a spent cock
or drought-
struck leaf,
turning brittle
as the cover
of an old pulp
ah bacon—
if I were to
bring you home,
it would be
as a flag
draped over
a coffin,
red & white
& red,
or some
long rash
I’d feed with
nervous nails.

If there were such things as ghosts

This entry is part 15 of 20 in the series Highgate Cemetery Poems


Walking obelisk

They would be white & watery
as boiled potatoes.

They would shimmer like the moon in a ditch.

They would have no eyebrows.

They would frequent banks & stock exchanges
instead of cemeteries.

They would step into traffic
like swimmers into a cold mountain lake.

They would be able to murmur
only a single word: Ah.

They would be afraid of the dark.

The life of the body

This entry is part 16 of 20 in the series Highgate Cemetery Poems


cemetery piano

The life of the body never ends—
this is why sensualists
are always so damn cheerful.
It goes on working down there
in that city the soil, busy
as a bodhisattva with 1000 arms
or a leaderless hive of bees.
The life of the body has
its own directive: to reproduce,
yes, but not only in the way
we think. Consider the big-
brained octopus, how its skin
can change in an instant to match
the color & pattern of the background
into which it wants to disappear,
shutting its eyes that do not see
in color, that never sleep.
The life of the body doesn’t end
at our borders. It’s a kind of music
that starts far below the pulse,
reverberating in the vast spaces
on either side of the present moment,
punctuated with every length of rest.

The Angel of Confession

This entry is part 17 of 20 in the series Highgate Cemetery Poems


Leprous angel

For touching what wasn’t mine—
even though I didn’t want it,
even though I gave it back—
I lost my fingers.
The press called us demonic
but they, my ten thin fates,
were innocent as fire
in search of fuel, & I
in my disguise as oxygen
couldn’t let them go out.
We shattered windows
to let more world
into those narrow shrines
to whatever. We broke in
aorta by aorta,
cavorting like a virus,
smashing the attenuated
plaster antibodies
in our excess of what
I thought was joy.
How they writhed & curled
in it! How they shook
& shuddered into ash.


This entry is part 18 of 20 in the series Highgate Cemetery Poems


Forest with graves

What wound is this of yours
that you should keep worrying it?

I like it. It tastes of tears & soil, like a boiled beet.

These aren’t even your ancestors.

But that’s half the attraction, isn’t it?
It’s like a revolution unfolding on the internet:
close at hand yet comfortably far away.
The anguish. The comradery.

But this city belongs to the dead.

All cities belong to the dead.
This one has more trees than most.
And I love any tourist spot
where the residents stay hidden
& don’t ruin our game of make-believe.

What game is that?

I sit still as a stone until words emerge.
They form themselves into epigrams on my forehead.

How do you win?

Someone lays a piece of slate at my feet.

Death Angels

This entry is part 19 of 20 in the series Highgate Cemetery Poems


Pensive angel

Death gets more credit
than it deserves.
It is we who, wherever
the bomb lands, draw
a bull’s-eye.
It is we who knot ropes
& live under glass,
who have razed forests
to build forests
of stone. We are made
to degrade gracefully,
like spent erections.
We have evolved to tower
on hind legs, to pass
for termite mounds
when we take root in
the heat of noon,
giving as little ground
to the sun as we can,
& while predators rest,
to stretch bold as shadows
toward whatever they
or the wind happen
to have dropped.