I had sixty candles to blow out this year, and the sheer numbers made me throw my hands up and go back to basics. One would do just fine. Shortly before that milestone day, I spent Memorial Day weekend at Arlington National Cemetery helping put to rest my husband’s Grandmother. Who at our ages still has a living grandmother—or even a newly-deceased grandmother— to call their own? Who are we in our small funeral cortege, and what is our sad purpose, among the multitudes of others alluded to that day?
I am one of the least political poets I know. I cannot deny that my work springs from a long line of confessional poets and personal poems. I don’t always vote, haven’t served in the military, and I’ve never written any protest poems. Though my war was Viet Nam, I was ten years younger than the men and woman who served in that war. I was confused that my older brothers never wanted to enlist, considering my father took such pride in his service during World War II. Besides making a few excuses for my brothers’ absence, I was pretty detached from the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The closest I came to making a political statement was to sit in the same classroom at Cornell, whose walls were still defaced from student protestors’ ardor of just a few years before I showed up on campus. I was proud to take at least a small part in the inheritance of resistance by simply basking in fall-out.
When my husband suggested I submit “A Beautiful Day to be Buried” to Consequence Magazine’s 2015 poetry prize on the subject of war, I hesitated. Who, me? I’m not qualified to do that! It hadn’t occurred to me that my poem could fall into a category of war poetry, so personal was my experience of that day. And yet, what is war if not the collection of our saddest stories? What is the body politic but the sum of a whole lot of candles?
Robert Bly once wrote that a poet’s best creative efforts spring from areas that are foreign to her. If a writer is mainly a narrative poet, then her pinnacle work will most likely be a lyric poem, and vice versa. We eventually write our best from what we know the least. We have to leave our comfort zones to achieve excellence. If this is true, then maybe it stands to reason that a poem of mine could speak to the nature and concerns of war. With the swipe of a pen, I married that Chief Warrant Officer who fought for his country in World War II. His abiding wife, I’ll now wait my turn to be placed alongside him in the crematorium niche.
Sixty candles. That requires a fair amount of lung. And yet, not so much, really. I remember looking out over that sea of tiny crosses and feeling so deeply grateful for everyone who has preceded me, and for this peaceful place on earth that commemorates generation after generation of sacrifice and courage.
A Beautiful Day to be Buried
The sun was shining violently,
as if on a mission to see beneath the surface of things.
Our cortege wormed its way past row on row
of identical white markers, the grounds immaculately groomed,
(Not even a single dandelion, the brother noted ),
and visitors searching for Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
As if we were props planted by the cemetery on this Memorial Day Weekend,
they swiveled heads to watch us pass,
or glanced up from the shoulders of toddlers
their adult arms were both holding back and nudging forward.
We were famous simply because we were sad.
They needn’t have been curious.
We were nobody. Not even much pain,
though a few experienced twinges of nostalgia—
that old sad, Arlington tug.
Once at the Columbarium, the lance corporal
climbed a step ladder and slid her box into the open niche
to join her only mate, not into earth’s dark but the starkness
of marble. I hoped we might also be able
to climb the ladder, to double check
and see what their version of Eternity looked like.
But no, he quickly took a photo with his cell—
assurance the cremains were who they were supposed to be—
before a drill gun set the one-way screws.