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Christopher Bursk: The Necropolis of Tarquinius

What are you boys doing? our father asked

though he really didn’t want to know

why we had pickaxes in our hands.

We’d just discovered a new word—necropolis

and now we wanted a city of the dead

of our own. But it was too hard digging life-size

trenches, so we settled for the flower garden

our mother wouldn’t need anymore.

Once we’d finished our burial plots

we required bodies

to bury, so Timothy started embalming

the marionettes our mother used to let us play with

on rainy days: dainty king

and queen and the rest of the royal family

with their servants and musicians,

all conscripted to die with their ruler,

each placed in a sarcophagus

we’d molded out of what was left of our mother’s

potter’s clay. Before each lid hardened

Timothy carved winged monkeys for it

and harp-playing lions, pomegranates and eggs,

and we placed inside tiny tablets

on which we had inscribed hieroglyphs

for the dead to decode,

packed also miniature baskets of raisins and rice

in case anyone needed to eat

as well as read

in the underworld. We nestled under each prince’s head

small pillows we’d stuffed

with pine needles; Timothy had read in a book

that the last sense to leave the body was smell.

And now it was time,

he said, to seal the tombs. We buried an entire nation

under brick, mud, then pebbles,

then earth rounded high enough

for us to find the tumuli again,

but no, Timothy said, we could not dig anyone back up.

This was it.

There was no question of resurrection.


From With Aeneas in a Time of Plague by Christopher Bursk (Ragged Sky, 2021). Copyright Christopher Bursk. 

Christopher Bursk (1943-2021) was an American poet, professor and activist. He is the author of nine poetry collections, including The First Inhabitants of Arcadia published by the University of Arkansas Press (2006), praised by The New York Times which said, “Bursk writes with verve and insight about child rearing, aging parents, sexuality, his literary heroes, the sexuality of his literary heroes.”

 On a hill east of Tarquinia in Lazio, Italy is a necropolis of about 6,000 graves, the oldest of which dates to the 7th century BC.

2 comments on “Christopher Bursk: The Necropolis of Tarquinius

  1. Alfred J Encarnacion
    October 28, 2021

    What an amazing poem, and what a beautiful, heartbreaking final collection, old friend.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Vox Populi
      October 28, 2021

      Thanks, Alfred. Yes, it is truly a beautiful and radiant collection. My favorite book of the year.

      Liked by 1 person

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