Honoring our late loved ones, with poems by Mark Elber and Fran Markover.
Officially, Memorial Day is the day we remember men and women who died in American-fought battles. But it’s also a day when we remember our friends and relatives that have died, and many of us visit the cemeteries that they’re buried in. To mark the occasion on this edition of Burning Bright, some poems about fathers and those who came before us by two of Passager’s most recent book authors, Mark Elber and Fran Markover.
First, from his book, Mark Elber’s poem “Requiem.”
My father went to sleep in his skin in the sun-flushed morning, in the
That shoveled a pit into my 35th year spadeful by spadeful and the
sky collapsed over Queens
If I could, I’d revive the sound of his voice barely caught on a few
The accent of his generation driven from the villages of their birth
The bellowing lung sacs of roosters squawking through the pebbled
alleys, the straw beds, the well-stubbled streets of mud and stone
If I could replay the red hair of my youth, when Atlas stood five foot six
in a stethoscope
Before we swallowed our love songs to each other
I’d exhume his spoken word lullabies, the chain of Slavic syllables that
links me to his father’s dark forests, to the kinks in his beard
To the warm lips buried in a riddled clearing
Ten thousand corpses deep
“Requiem,” a tribute by Mark Elber to his father and, by association, his more distant forebears.
Fran Markover wrote this next poem “Bittersweet” about her husband’s father.
The night of the burial we head for ice cream.
At Purity, my husband recalls his father’s love –
baseball – a storyboard of bunts, comebacks,
blowouts. After games, we’d toast each nail-biter
with malteds whenever Finger Lakes Seniors
won big. His dad, as if hearing cries of good eye,
would size up each Rocky Road or Mud Pie.
Thinking of his father, my husband orders
double peppermint chip. Notes how Dixie Cups
are smaller than when his folks were alive.
Can’t anything stay the same? Will Monster Cones
shrink to kiddie scoops?
We taste the bittersweet, sure that my father-
in-law would’ve ranted at chocolate morsels
so puny they slip unnoticed, shrouded inside
all the confection. We sit in the car, bundled
in parkas, fine-tune Bound for Glory on the radio.
Eat Dessert First blinks, reddens the wall.
In January chill, our breath forms a milky way.
“Bittersweet,” Fran Markover from her book Grandfather’s Mandolin.
Fran Markover wrote this poem for and about her husband, Ron Schoneman, “Psalm for the Caretaker.”
Mornings, he pulls weeds at the cemetery.
Here, he’s close to his parents, to the baby sister he never met,
her grave found when he divined it by holding a metal rod.
He pushes a rusty mower by the rows, nodding at names,
carved cherubs, flags waving like wings. He tips his cap
to the men who taught him to pitch fastballs, offers thanks
to the church ladies who latticed rhubarb pies, honey
trickling down crusts for the bereaved. Behind the
woodshed, he bows to the paupers buried without granite.
In August heat, he’s sweat and muscle, grass clippings
scattering onto the buttercups. It’s a blessing: the quiet,
the solitary birds perching on stone. He’s a good son
tending to family as if they’re rocking on the porch,
watching as he waters the garden, gathers tomatoes
for supper. He plucks cantaloupe, Mother and Father
asking if he could pick lilies from the field for the table.
As if his mother’s voice rises from the ground, saying,
Oh, my god! I’ll be darned, those orange petals, how
beautiful and the melon so ripe . . .
“Psalm for the Caretaker,” Fran Markover.
Let’s end this Memorial Day episode with Mark Elber’s “Prayers for the Dead.” I think it’s a poem we can all relate to, regardless of our ethnicity.
What stitched together sounds can I offer the silenced
blindsided by darkness
sealed with night under
a lid lathed from a tree and lowered
into the mute earth
what words that migrated out of the sea to slither
up the sibilant shore and offer a slew of grunts that slowly
found its own music
while the tongue groped
between stun and awe
here among the cries stoppered in their guttural glory
among pollen and seed, the trickle that births the torrent
before the senses grow senseless
and we are ebbing, humbled
our skin kissed each other awake
our voices break in the surge
as we resurrect the lush palette of touch
the divine dance radiant
the defiant song of generation
“Prayers for the Dead,” Mark Elber.
To order Mark’s Morgenthau Prize winning book Headstone or Fran Markover’s book Grandfather’s Mandolin or to subscribe to or learn more about Passager and its commitment to writers over 50, go to passagerbooks.com. You can download Burning Bright from Spotify, Apple and Google Podcasts and various other podcast apps.
For Kendra, Mary, Christine, Rosanne and the rest of the Passager staff, I’m Jon Shorr.
Due to the limitations of online publishing, poems may not appear in their original formatting.