Two Poems

John Burnside

At My Father’s Funeral

The idea that the body as well as the soul was immortal was probably linked on to a very primitive belief regarding the dead, and one shared by many peoples, that they lived on in the grave. This conception was never forgotten, even in regions where the theory of a distant land of the dead was evolved, or where the body was consumed by fire before burial. It appears from such practices as binding the dead with cords, or laying heavy stones or a mound of earth on the grave, probably to prevent their egress, or feeding the dead with sacrificial food at the grave, or from the belief that the dead come forth not as spirits, but in the body from the grave.

J.A. MacCulloch, The Religion of the Ancient Celts

We wanted to seal his mouth
with a handful of clay,
to cover his eyes
with the ash of the last

bonfire he made
at the rainiest edge
of the garden

and didn’t we think, for a moment,
of crushing his feet
so he couldn’t return to the house
at Halloween,

to stand at the window,
smoking and peering in,
the look on his face

like that flaw in the sway of the world
where mastery fails
and a hinge in the mind
swings open – grief

or terror coming loose
and drifting, like a leaf,
into the flames.

Abelard and Eloise

A story the Sisters would tell
for reasons of their own
to children in the slurred chorale
of puberty
and longing at first sight,
it never quite
rang true and, even now,
I half-remember
what I learned elsewhere
from vintage porn
and matinees of noir
whenever I think of them,
parted and settled in
to make the best
of distance, which is far
more beautiful
than half a century
of House & Home;
and I always suspect they’re
relieved,
when the world stalls around
their letters, ermine and bells
and decades of physick
come to a perfect
standstill,
the ink running dry
and the good task of filling the well,
or going about the room
in the honeycombed light,
more pleasing, now,
than what they thought they wanted.