August Notebook: A Death

1. River Bicycle Peony

I woke up thinking abouy my brothr’s body.
That q That was my first bit of early morning typing
So the first dignity, it turns out, is to get the spelling right.

I woke up thinking about my brother’s body.
Apparently it’s at the medical examiner’s morgue.
I found myself wondering whether he was naked

Yet and whose job it was to take clothes off
And when they did it. It seemed unnecessary
To undress his body until they performed the exam

And that is going to happen later this morning
And so I found myself hoping that he was dressed
Still, though smell may be an issue, or hygiene.

When the police do a forced entry for the purpose
Of a welfare check and the deceased person is alone,
The body goes to the medical examiner’s morgue

In the section for those deaths in which no evidence
Of foul play is involved so the examination
For cause of death is fairly routine. Two policemen,

For some reason I imagine they were young,
Found my brother. His body was in the bed
Which was a mattress on the floor. He was lying

On his back, according to Angela, my brother’s friend,
Who lives in the building and is schizophrenic
And always introduced herself as my brother’s

Personal assistant, and he seemed peaceful.
There would have been nothing in the room
But the mattress and a microwave, an ashtray,

I suppose, cartons and food wrappers he hadn’t
Thrown away and the little plastic prescription
Bottles that he referred to as his scrips.

They must have called the ambulance
And that was probably a team of three.
When I woke, I visualized this narrative

And thought it would be shorter. I thought
That what would represent my feelings
Would be the absence of metaphor.

But then, at the third line, I discovered
The three-line stanza and that it was
Going to be the second dignity. So

I imagine he is in one of those aluminium
Cubicles I’ve seen in the movies,
Dressed or not. I also imagine that,

If they undressed him, and perhaps washed
His body or gave it an alcohol rub
To disinfect it, that that was the job

Of some emigrant from a hot, poor country.
Anyway, he is dressed in this stanza,
Which mimics the terza rima of Dante’s comedy

And is a form that Wallace Stevens liked
To use, and also my dear friend Robert.
And “seemed peaceful” is a kind of metaphor.

2. Sudden and Grateful Memory of Mississippi John Hurt

Because I woke again thinking of my brother’s body
And why anyone would care in some future
That poetry addresses how a body is transferred
From the medical examiner’s office,
Which is organized by local government
And issues a certificate certifying that the person
In question is in fact dead and names the cause
Or causes, to the mortuary or cremation society,
Most of which are privately owned businesses
And run for profit and until recently tended
To be family businesses with skills and decorums
Passed from father to son, and often quite ethnically
Specific, in a country like ours made from crossers
Of borders, as if, in the intimacy of death,
Some tribal shame or squeamishness or sense
Of decorum asserted itself so that the Irish
Buried the Irish and the Italians the Italians.
In the South in the early years of the last century
It was the one business in which a black person
Could grow wealthy and pass on a trade
And a modicum of independence to his children.
I know this because Earlene wrote a paper about it
In school and interviewed fourth-generation
African American morticians in Oakland
Whose grandfathers and great-grandfathers
Had buried the dead in cotton towns on the Delta
Or along the Brazos River in Texas, passing on
To their children who had gone west an order
Of doing things and symbolic forms of courtesy
For the bereaved and sequences of behavior
At wakes and funerals, so that, for example,
The eldest woman in the maternal line
Entered the chapel first, and what prayers
Were said in what order. During Prohibition
They even sold the white lightning to the men
Who were allowed to slip outside and take a nip
And talk about the dead while the cries
And gospel-song-voiced contralto moans
Of grief that could sound like curious elation
Rose inside. Also the rules for burial or burning.
Griefs and rituals and inside them cosmologies.
And I thought gratefully of Mississippi John Hurt’s
Great song about Louis Collins and its terrible
Tenderness which can’t be reproduced here
Because so much of it is in the picking
Of the twelve-string guitar and in his sweet,
Reedy old man’s voice:
            When they heard
            That Louis was dead,
            All the people dressed in red.
            The angels laid him away.
            They laid him six feet under the clay.
            The angels laid him away.


You can fall a long way in sunlight.
You can fall a long way in the rain.

The ones who didn’t take the old white horse
Took the morning train.

When you go down into the city of the dead
With its whitewashed walls and winding alleys
And avenues of autumnal lindens and the heavy bells
Tolling by the sea, crowds
Appear from all directions,
Having left their benches and tiered plazas,
Laying aside their occupations of reverie
And gossip and the memory of breathing—
At least in the most reliable stories,
Which are the ones the poets tell—
To hear what scraps you can bring
Of the news of this world where the air
Is thin in the high altitudes and
Of an almost perfect density in the valleys
And shadows on summer afternoons sometimes
Achieve a shade of violet that almost never
Falls across pavements down there. Only the arborist
In the park never comes for new arrivals. He is not incurious
But he loves his work, pruning the trees,
Giving them their graceful lift
Toward light, and standing back
To study their shapes, because it is he
Who gets to decide
Which limbs get lopped off
In the kingdom of the dead.

You can fall a long way in sunlight.
You can fall a long way in the rain.

The ones who don’t take the old white horse
Take the evening train.


Today his body is consigned to the flames
And I begin to understand why people
Would want to carry a body to the river’s edge
And build a platform of wood and burn it
In the wind and scatter the ashes in the river.
As if to say, take him, fire, take him, air,
And, river, take him. Downstream. Downstream.
Watch the ashes disappear in the fast water
or, in a small flaring of anger, turn away, walk back
toward the markets and the hum of life, not quite
saying to yourself There, the hell with it, it’s done.
I said to him once, when he’d gotten into some scrape
Or other, “You know, you have the impulse control
Of a ferret.” And he said, “Yeah? I don’t know
What a ferret is, but I get greedy. I don’t mean to,
But I get greedy.” An old grubber’s beard, going grey,
A wheelchair, sweats, a street person’s baseball cap.
“I’ve been thinking about Billie Holiday, you know
if she were around now, she’d be nothing. You know
what I mean? Hip-hop? Never. She had to be born
at a time when they were writing the kind of songs
and people were listening to the kind of songs
she was great at singing.” And I would say,
“You just got evicted from your apartment,
you can’t walk, and you have no money, so
I don’t want to talk to you about Billie Holiday
Right now, OK.” And he would say, “You know,
I’m like Mom. I mean, she really had a genius
For denial, don’t you think? And the thing is.
You know, she was a pretty happy person.”
And I would say, “She was not a happy person.
She was panicky and crippled by guilt at her drinking,
Hollowed out by it, honeycombed with it,
And she was evasive to herself about herself,
And so she couldn’t actually connect with anybody,
And her only defense was to be chronically cheerful.”
And he would say, “Worse things than cheerful.”
Well, I am through with those arguments,
Except in my head, though I seem not to be through with the habit—
I thought this poem would end downstream downstream
of worrying about where you are and how you’re doing.