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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.
What an amazing poem, and what a beautiful, heartbreaking final collection, old friend.
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Thanks, Alfred. Yes, it is truly a beautiful and radiant collection. My favorite book of the year.
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