RWB Workshop Poem of the Week—June 4

Della Rowland
The Undertaker

If you were 22, newly married, uniformed, and ready 
to ship out with your unit but found yourself 
under a clean white sheet coughing up TB blood, 
then rehabbing with your bride at your bedside
in a slim skirt and fuck-me pumps, 
her photo in the wallet you meant to take with you to the front,
the one of her with her dark wavy hair swooped up off her forehead, 
wrapped in a snood at the nape, a gardenia behind her ear like Billie, 

you might feel the living’s guilt when three quarters 
of that bonded unit was killed right off the boat ramp.

You might think you were always lucky 
and you’d have been the heads side of that coin flip 
to see who goes and dies, or stays and lives.

You might believe, having tricked death once with TB, 
that you could stay in that good grace 
by selling life after death in your three funeral homes, 
where a body is brought to look natural again, 
where the family would pay someone to take its bones back to earth.

You might hope that the grieving living would never forget you, 
your vividly empathetic eyes, your sudden chivalrous gestures 
as if to save a swaying vase from shattering on the floor,
like when you bolted from a chair to grab a tissue
and dab a mourner’s eye with the familiarity of kin.

You might wish to hear everyone who crowded your wake 
and gravesite proclaim their love 
and recount their particular memory of your kindnesses,
as if they knew how carefully you placed their dead 
on the porcelain table with a drain at one end, 
how you patted their hands after massaging the blood out, 
preserved their modesty with a white sheet.

As if they knew you saw each car-wrecked body that came to you
as a boy from off the battlefield, 
uniform in tatters,
whose smashed-up face and bloodied hands 
must be restored.


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