On The Greenleaf Review Radio Show writer and teacher Douglas Smith discussed with us a poem’s ability to depict memory. Is memory true? Or do we twist memory into our own form? Doug argues that, “we shape the past and call it memory.” Memory, he believes, “is not something we simply possess.”
He read the following poems: The Order for the Burial of the Dead, A Primer to Be Read in the Hours Before Light, and Study in Winter with Grave and Bird.
To listen to his interview, scroll through the audio box on the right side of the page.
The Order for the Burial of the Dead
What is there to say against the dead?
What provision can be made? There are no words
for your vacant body placed in the hard bed
of a grave, no birds to drink the cold
rain cupped in your open hands, which hold
emptiness like a treasure. You apprehend
no god in the closure of your eyes, which see
nothing, always. You cannot be named
by hymn or howl. What have you become?
No revenant ever tells. The story of
death is in the leaving. Let the rain come down.
The shutters on the village houses
close. The church by the stippled river
says faith, faith in the air. A blind man sings, See
that my grave is kept clean. His voice was once heard
in your house. Your horses stand for now
under the distant trees. They do not
forgive. They do not condemn. Your body, left
here under this earth, will not be found. One horse,
wet with rain, turns and bows down, eating.
A Primer to Be Read in the Hours Before Light
Sleep is the anodyne, the lost world
submerged. In her absence
you cannot sleep.
You are the body alone in this bed.
Your clothes confess emptiness
on this chair.
The door locked, the room is
deep in the design
Close your eyes. There is nothing
to see on the earth.
No fable can return the form
of her body
to your entranced bed.
Say to no one, Forget the ghost
of every god.
Say to no one, Count the hours
in your head.
For the idea of sleep is infinite.
The juniper tree murmuring
like a prophet
against your window
Even the kite of your mind
rising is infinite.
Look. Her body is away.
Open your mouth.
Inside lies a tongue, a cry.
Yes, the spell of her name
makes you shiver
under the white sheet.
Yes, the origin of night
makes you turn.
Do not pray for morning
the clothes on your chair.
Ask one question
in your quiet room. Wait
for an answer.
Thirst, a rain crow
calls from the branches
of the juniper tree.
Listen. The season
contains the word
But the crow is a toy
for your mind.
The union of sleep
is your subject.
Refuse the verge
in this room.
The white sheet conceals
your breathing body,
and the window frames
the murmuring tree.
Here, under the xeric sky,
a man, a tree, a crow.
For the hours are years,
and the years compose.
Make a zoo of what is
missing. Be a lion
in sleep, dreaming
Study in Winter with Grave and Bird
for my grandmother
The text of her breath is a book we close.
Her mouth drinks no more the tinder of pain.
We carry her aloft, hymns on our tongues.
She means no mouth singing the many names.
She means one body placed beyond all words.
We make a procession from grief to grave.
One bird, somber, shivers a branch above.
This earth is sovereign and receives her form.
She is no god, absent, remembered.