Like a Banked Fire


Three women climb from the car

in which they have driven slowly

into the churchyard.

They come toward us, to see

what we are doing.

What we are doing

is reading the strange,

wonderful names

of the dead.

One of the women

speaks to us––

after we speak to her.

She walks with us and shows us,

with downward-thrust finger,

which of the dead were her people.

She tells us

about two brothers, and an argument,

and a gun––she points

to one of the slabs

on which there is a name,

some scripture, a handful of red

plastic flowers. We ask her

about the other brother.

“Chain gang,” she says,

as you or I might say

“Des Moines,” or “New Haven.” And then,

“Look around all you want.”

The younger woman stands back, in the stiff weeds,

like a banked fire.


The third one––

the oldest human being we have ever seen in our lives––

suddenly drops to the dirt

and begins to cry. Clearly

she is blind, and clearly

she can’t rise, but they lift her, like a child,

and lead her away, across the graves, as though

as old as anything could ever be, she was, finally,

perfectly finished, perfectly heartbroken, perfectly wild.

–Mary Oliver


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