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How We Bury Our Dead

by Jonathan Glenn Travelstead

Nine-thirty a.m., Thursday, June twenty-seventh.
My parents' home. So who are these penguin men who take
the wash cloth and plastic tub, the dropper
of absinthe-tinged morphine from my father's enormous hands?
The funeral men have come, though no one remembers
who it is that called them. They soothe my sisters, myself, and brother
in succession, hands guiding our shoulders
to the sunflower curtains of the kitchen.
Narcotic blue pooled in the sink's chipped porcelain.
Coffee, cold and still in its pot. Because we have paid them
to dictate for us our farewells,
they take special care to assure us that bathing the body
is no way to milk pain from the hands,
that we only increase our trauma with each stroke of my mother's slack,
cooling cheek. Stitched together like a quilt.
This is how they coach us to wait, to save it for the reenaction 
in their Victorian rooms of veneered particle board
and crushed velvet as if the pulse could rekindle for bad taste.
Scene. Tie snared around my neck. 
Blurred queue of faces and run-on condolences
parade by the body I now only remember with exes for eyes.
Where is the comfort where nothing is understood?
Where, in the twenty-third Psalm's pastures and valley of death
do we begin forgetting how it was
that when we were apes and said goodbye
we gathered around what is lifeless with low hoots,
hairy fists just uncurling from anger at the sky
before dragging the cicada wings of our hearts into the reeds?
We forget, too, the cloyed smell of rose petals and orange peel
means ghost, that a host of sparrows
ferry the body's remainder across the river-
the body which was once packed on the dining room table with rosemary
and lavendar by the son so the family may then begin
lowering the weight. What I feel instead is an anger
they tell me is impotent, worthless. An anger
they say I don't want and should not feel and so it returns to me 
and returns to me. It comes as grief that gloves the tongue,
dulling a taste for sweets. It comes like a rag-tipped phantom, lingering
at the corner of sight in July's baked afternoon, 
and it comes like an opiate. Making each lover my mother, 
it comes as I find sex joyless and strange because, by opening the box 
where they place a scarecrow that almost looks like her, 
I forget that warmth leaving my palm is what means goodbye. 
Ask yourself who buries your dead? Go on. Not you. 
Garbage men paid with a discrete check in the mail.
George & Lenny with a backhoe and spade in a crude American Gothic
for Funeral Times magazine, dangling cigarettes in the only hole
that separates them from making rent
and two cases of beer a week as they talk about that patch of America
they're gonna call their own. And all those rabbits.
This is how you look away. 
This is how we bury our dead.

"How We Bury Our Dead" was previously published in Conflict Tours Poetry Collection, 2015, and in "Crab Orchard Review," Fall, 2017.

Jonathan Travelstead served in the Air Force National Guard for six years as a firefighter and currently works as a full-time firefighter for the city of Murphysboro, IL, and as co-editor for Cobalt Review. Having finished his MFA at Southern Illinois University of Carbondale, he also turns a lathe, crafting pens under the name Scorched Ink Penturning. His first collection How We Bury Our Dead (Cobalt Press) was released in March, 2015, and Conflict Tours (Cobalt Press) was released in 2017.