Greenwood Cemetery
Chang Kyun Kim

Greenwood Cemetery

“Dim shadows like ghosts walk unseen up and down the narrow lane, mingling with the people who never guess their presence. When they are seen, they wear the anonymous mask of man.”
                                                                              –Roger Mais

i. Prologue: Veil of Veronica

Defiant as the brilliance of the Christ
And his technicolor halo in the velvet print
Covering the wall behind the choirstand,
My sister—pinned straight, coiffed still—
Keeps breathless vigil on a blood-red pew.

Mourners move around her in procession;
My kid brother sprawls, sleeping, across her lap.
She is Mary: placid. Her veil cascades in curls.
Her radiance: mink eyelashes. My mother’s nose,
A Byzantine roof, tops her upturned face.

She is most beautiful this instant: such precision
For plaster, for clay—what she whispers through
In waiting rooms to grieving families, dons
In hospice halls, ICU, Nightingale’s lamp
A silver bullet embedded in her scrubs.

There’s no wonder where she gets it from; the awe
Is that she never takes it off. Even the women
Who bequeathed it can crumble, but she
Is bionic. She will not bow to wind or dust,
The hands of mortals, doting as the mouths of moths.

Last Madonna. Immaculate mother who ends
All mothering with this: Savior or kin,
Supplicant, self—once you’ve fallen, she’ll draw
The sheet, close your eyes from others’ view,
Her own head turned; a screen of hair and (you

Might imagine) a fluttering lash. So be it. She’s done
Bearing the body. She need not behold the face.

ii. Ed (d. 1986)

My boyfriend is drinking water: the slosh and gurgle,
His vulnerable throat, exposed, make me seethe.

Two weeks ago, I shook him awake,
Snatched his things, and threw them into the street.

Then a day later, begged him home.
I’m fighting your wife: mother of my mother’s mother,

Who took you, last father to make
An honest woman among our patchwork brood

Of “maybe” children, many of them dead
Or almost. Like the old station wagon. Like Butch,

the dog, golden and broken like the butter cookies
You’d hide beneath the mattress your wife set on fire.

Forgive me for turned locks, for tear-stained knuckles,
Landing blindly. For the men I’ve goaded, guilted.

For every dead-weight memory
I’ve sloughed and sleep on, and how a trail

Of flames has penned me in a place
Where I despise a man who only wants a drink.

Somewhere in this bellows of breath and bone
A familial finger trembles on the trigger

Of a blood arsenal. I am legion: trigonous seed
Of the woman who came to you in your sleep,

Above the cookies, on the same mattress
She’d set on fire a few years before,

and blew you past my reach.

iii. Jacob and Jessica (d. 1987)

She took $200 and the sheets
From the bed she knew they’d slept together on,
And took them to the rootworker in Coushatta

Her sister had told her about. The woman
Wasn’t the ample grand-mére she’d expected.
Small, wiry. The wife had imagined

Softness. Big-breasts. One who held you, hugged,
Made tea cakes. But this one—not friendly.
Not soothing. Didn’t smile. Didn’t say too much.

She wondered about etiquette: should she pause,
Pretend to think twice? The rootworker didn’t seem
To care; just cut her eyes toward a corner chair.

In the center of the room
Sat a galvanized steel tub covered in ash.
Burned many times before. Like me, she thought

Then pushed the thought away. There had been
Neighbors, a friend, a niece, but nothing to show
For any of it. But this time, the woman succeeded

Where the wife had failed. Instinctively, she traced
The scar along her pantyline, remembered how
It had silvered, shrunk. Like the doctor said it would.

Later, she drove home with the windows down, a mist
Melting the heat from her skin. She sighed: Done.
But it didn’t happen fast. That woman’s stomach

Swelled almost to bursting; she carried low
But bore her load with a kind of dignity that made
The wife want to kiss her, like Celie did Shug.

Like her husband. Tall and quiet as an Indian she’d heard
Him tell his brother. The wife had watched her, a seamstress,
Unfolding bolts of cloth at the fabric store,

Holding hands with her daughter (a toddler—somebody else’s)
As they walked to the car. She watched for months
Until the night the phone rang, and her husband answered.

She knew better than to ask where he was going
Without his hat or wallet. She spent all night
Wondering if he’d come back for them.

They never talked about it. It never happened again.
But it was a small town; she’d heard the story,
And through the long years of her life counted

And recounted each detail, like rosary beads.
Just as she did when she watched Sally Jessy,
She tried to put herself in the woman’s shoes:

Her slow, swollen feet; the belly that never
Really went down, as if it would always carry
Some piece of their man. And she, the wife,

Didn’t know whether to feel guilty
Or just relieved. A boy and girl born dead.
We don’t know how, a nurse whispered over a cart

One day at Best Yet. They were perfect. Big babies.
One nine pounds, one ten. Long fingers and toes.
Lord Jesus! Seem like they’d just wake up,

Except, and the nurse looked down as if
She were still cradling the ruin,
Consoling the phantom children the way a woman

Who’d been someone else’s mother could:
Never seen it before or since, she’d say.
It looked like they’d been burned. All over

iv. uncle mike (d. 1992)

mama burned the pork chops
the night he got stomped
over smoked-up dope
& too many debts.
so we ate jelly sandwiches
& stayed up until
she brought him home
balled up tight
against himself
with his nose running.
mama held one narrow elbow
& a bean-shaped pan
they took from the emergency room.

his open skin looked oily & tight
with bruises a different color of dark.
i thought of jesus then:
my uncle
who was once the King
of Something
now a bloat-faced monster
with the heart and lungs of ninety
& the skittish, crumpled body
of a boy.

that was the night the family decided
he would do better at a rehab in Jackson
where dealers couldn’t catch him
and where he’d die
across the river—away from kin
and with new wounds:
running from relapse
the way children try to beat
storm clouds home,
or trace the path of lightning
before it darkens.

i hadn’t seen
the grave since
we put him in it.
There’s a small plaque there
with his name,
a bible on a stand
still open to verses
blackened from sunlight.
neglect. rain.

v. Aunt Mary (d. 1992)

My mother tried to pray you back to life,
Kneeling beside you until the coroner came,
Then cleaned the house, brought your old clothes home
And wore them. They always smelled like your house.

After Erick said he saw you, a coil of light
Unfurling in the dark kitchen, she slept in my bed.
“But I’m almost eleven,” I pleaded, spread eagle. No use.
She did until she felt like stopping. Then she stopped.

The doctor and I sit on couches facing each other.
In this place, every memory is me:
History. Symptoms. Diagnosis. Cure. Cure.
But this one’s safe: I’ll never speak of it.

I don’t want to know what happened to my mother or me
When she stood over my body until it moved.

vi. Hattie Belle (d. 1993)

The night after you did it, you beckoned
Grand- and great-grandchildren
To your bed, your face
Finished with a velvet powdering,
Dash of rouge. Dry sobs.
Go and hug her, my mother hissed
And as I stumbled forward, you dragged me
To you in one long, wailing lie:
I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to do it!

This is the kindest you had been
And the kindest you would be. Years later
I would watch, my greasy teenage face
Lipsticked by relatives, eyes dry
As you lay in state, the same as you did
That day: deaf to the chaos
Your comings and goings caused.
One aunt, who hadn’t spoken to you since,
Flailed on the first row, convinced
Her anger had been a mistake.

Facebook windows explode.
I scroll past the streets of Ferguson,
Each blazing still reduced
To punctuation for capitalized rants,
Like that of my cop friend
Whose favorite thing to do to ease the nerves
Of black men he’s pulled over is to tell
Jokes, then let them go
With warnings. I don’t wonder why
You never went to jail.
He was an old black man.
You were an old black woman.
We were quiet, hardworking people.
We had learned to survive the law.
Fair exchange, my best friend likes to say,
Is no robbery. No robbery at all.

vii. Lettie Lee (d. 19–)

I’m dosed up, in a half-nod, watching the news.
Snapshots of shootings; women ripped
From their shoes. Slammed to the concrete:
Bloody knees. Teenage girls decaying.
First freeze. The rush and hum of machinery:
Piercing crackle—tangle of wires, hissing.
My brain, kissing the edge of my skull—Squeeze—

I think of electricity. Valent, co-valent need.

I think of eating: no, stomach. Learn.

I think of grieving. I think of Lettie Lee.

(I am trying to tell you in a foreign language
          What everybody knows at home.)

Family secret:
lettie’s husband moved away and left her
clothes in front of a house he’d sold without telling her
then who knows what nerves fraying neurons nicked
like stiletto heels caught in sidewalk cracks
some explosion like koof lettie lee was never
the same hush stop quiet all anybody will say

I’ve made her up a few times, though. I never tell:
Hair. Legs. Nipples. Arms.
Naked—running. Buttocks. Shoulder blades.
Then she’s still for a moment on the low land she was raised on.
Flash instant, like a deer panting in shade.
Diesel engines growl past on the highway above.
Some tendon glitches on. Gone. Away.

(I get like her sometimes. I’ll never tell.)

No one can pinpoint the moment before anything happens
Until it passes. I’m the same. Compare disasters:
Is it better than this? Or worse. Worse? Worse.
Skull: revolving lens at the optometrist’s office.
3? Or 4? I blink at the Awful—Light—Screen—

Then it retracts. The news is off. Sugar-glass windows
Dark. The washer stops—starts—steams.
Thin soup in the microwave knocks the bowl as it boils.
The dryer timer buzzes. Sharp. Off.
What next—to bed? To bed? Lettie Lee
Is a whistle of heat that leaks into the narrow hall.
She asks: what’s the saturation of reason when it scalds?

viii. Father (d. )

My mother, with her immaculate forgiveness:
As sturdy and unassuming as a bar of soap.
And it’ll leave you clean too—clean
And itchy. You’ll spend your whole life making amends.
Guilt will do that to you. It’s your own fault.
This is how the meek inherit the earth.

I wish I could get my hands on you.
I wish I could forgive you.
I wish you would ask.
I wish a lot of things—that maybe
When you are really dead, your other children
Will look for me, and I will be somebody important
By then, and I will walk into a house with a husband
Who loves his kids—if not me—and embarrass them.

But I am getting older, and maybe he won’t
And maybe they won’t
And maybe you won’t die, but come for me
Yourself. See, this is how the stupidity of my reason
Reaches its peak, because even I know
This is something you will never do.
I may well have been a worthless
Child, but my mother kept it to herself.
She washed my face. Your absence told me the truth.
So I am killing you because
I’m not immaculate: I am not my mother.
Because you want nothing from me:
You are not my mother.
Because I belong to her
And no one else.

Destiny Birdsong is a poet whose work has appeared in RATTLE, Vinyl, Tidal Basin Review, Cave Canem Anthology XII: Poems (2008-2009) and other publications. She is a lecturer and academic adviser at Vanderbilt University.


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