An Epitaph of Flowers

"Gravestones tell truth scarce forty years."
-- Sir Thomas Browne

Come, mistress, 'neath this hawthorn rest
And view this work we first began in jest,
But finished in a strange solemnity
That's lately rather silenced you and me.
What can I say to make you gay and merry?
Look out upon this ruined cemetery
And see how we have shaped it, put the stones
Back on the pedestals, and hoped the bones
Beneath would somehow match these monuments
So scattered by the seasons' elements.

For human hands have also desecrated
These tombs a hundred years have consecrated.
Teenagers from the town in recent years
Have brought out here their blankets and their beers.
They knock down gravestones mightily, and after,
Lose all their present cares in present laughter.
And rumor has it there's a pimp in town
Who brings his whores out here—so on the ground
The happy customer gets his ten minutes
Without a care, beyond the city limits.
A thrill, I'd think, to buy a round-the-world
Upon a dirty army blanket, whirled
By some tongue's artificial stimulation
To think about one's own degeneration
And yet to muse upon the grandeur of
Perversion roused by some hard whore's unlove—
Superior far to lodging in that room
(One's round-the-world journey's end) the tomb.

You're not amused? But still, you helped to set
These stones upright, and deck with violet
And wild rose each weathered limestone face.
You wrote in fragile color where no trace
Of human legend stays, an epitaph
of flowers.
Donít be morose, my dear, let's laugh,
And realize that these poor souls beneath
Rejoice in their re-ornamented heath!
Why yes, they're still down there all right—you see
The richness of this grass, so velvety
And green? A natural carpet, highly prized;
No wonder, for it's amply fertilized.
What do you mean, my little jokes are gruesome?
In all this place, we are the only twosome
Who know we're us: ours is a combination
More rare than all these stones' commemoration.

Just contemplate this yard of souls, who died
In willing separation from this side
Of paradise, and blest anticipation:
However parted from this life's temptations,
Still they were buried 'neath their proper stones
Which kept their names and histories for bones
To don again at that last trumpet blast.
And now the joke's on them, for stone won't last,
And pairs of graves and monuments are split
And parts re-shuffled—but that's not half of it,
for when that trumpet blows there'll be real
Bluffing 'mongst these wild cards in that big deal.

I see your eyes are fresh as flowers now—
Don't think about that showdown yet, but how
We two have staged our own apocalypse
With miniature omnisciency, in trips
across this meadow lugging stones to place them
Where other forces struggled to erase them.
And just as we have sought to re-arrange
And form these scattered fragments on this grange,
Our afternoon of playtime may have mended
some breaches that whole lifetimes had not ended.

For think upon these stones and bones, and see
There's not much difference: the memory
That once held both together long side faded,
Till stones are equaled now with what they shaded.
These blank bare tablets hold a common trust
Of anonymity with buried dust,
And if someone should ask, "What mean these bones?"
The same dumb cry may echo from these stones.

Who knows? In standing them all up again
We may have bettered what did ne'er begin,
And joined at last some loyal old-maid teacher
(Who pined in silence forty years) with her fair preacher.
Some bachelor, famed for his timidity,
We may have put in close proximity
Next to the village tart—who gives a sigh
That she's at last escaped the haughty eye
That glared at her for ninety years in stone,
Marking the grave of pious Deacon Jones.

That big slab over there, now in the corner:
It may have been some oaf's who, without honor
(Save for a notice on society's page,
"A marriage reaches fifty years of age . . . ")
Entombed his wife in years of living sadness.
And now her stone, in unexpected gladness,
Is rolled next to the monument of one,
Her childhood sweetheart, fallen at Bull Run.

Enough of this Spoon River speculation!
We cannot know the joy or tribulation
Of those who linger here, but certainly
Our deeds may share this life, for them to see.
For no deciphering of ruined letter
Can spell the secrets that such ruins fetter.
Perpetuation of each epitaph
Depends on those like us, who, with a laugh,
Admit the heart's dread—that our legends be
No more, no less, than such proud fantasy,
And yet with love and care will re-create
A flowered semblance of that former state.

You're smiling now, but save your energy,
My love, for we have one last fealty
Remaining, one by which we'll try to pay
True homage to these honest tombs—a way,
A simple ritual that all have acted
Who linger here, or later were attracted.
Whether they said the rites for selfish gain
Or altruistic love, it's all the same
To those below. Only the elevation
Of bone within the flesh can bring elation
To their dust. And whether by this we'll chasten
Their spinning souls for heaven, or rather hasten
Our own to hell's beyond my speculation,
For I speak of a different immolation.

Come, with your charms, now raise this monument
And deck it with your last flower's ornament.
Its momentary resting place will be
A lasting pledge to that felicity
By which gay tombs, though robbed, sustain no harm.
My archeologist! Whose knowing arm
Restores the fallen edifice to glory!
Now learn the grandeur of this ancient story:
Against mute temple walls the tissue's pressed
As soft as petals which these graves have dressed,
And by such careful tracing all this hour
We two into our epitaph will flower.

First published in Indiana Sesquicentennial Poets. Copyright © 1967, 2006 by Jared Carter.

Table Of Contents    About Jared Carter    Guidelines