This is not Crystal Lake's Union Cemetery in the snow, but damned close.
It was a day very much like this one. Cold. Very cold. A hard winter all around that year. Old snow piled high where plows and shovels had pushed. On the well traveled sidewalk on the way to the Crystal Lake train station it was trodden into a thick, hard surface.
I was on my way to work as a second shift custodian at Briargate Elementary School in Cary, the next town down the tracks toward Chicago. It must have been about 1990, maybe ’91. The memory is fuzzy. As I trudged to the station and was just abreast of Union Cemetery on Woodstock Street, I saw the lonely hearse pull up and discharge its cargo in the snow. I stood and watched for a moment, strangely moved.
Then I had to pick up speed to make my train. Once on board I pulled a small notebook out started scribbling.
It was the first poem I had written in over ten years since my down and out days trading verse for shots at the Blue Bird Tap & Liquors on Irving Park Road in Chicago. I surprised myself. It wasn’t terrible. And it got better with tinkering.
Not knowing what to do with it I sent it into the Poet’s Corner, a space filler printed every Saturday in the Neighbors section of the Northwest Herald. No particular honor to be published there—they printed everything sent to them that wasn’t obscene. A few weeks later it showed up among four line ditties by third graders and excruciatingly awful imitation greeting card verse. But it was the first time I was in print for quite a while. I was stupidly proud.
I was also encouraged. I began to write poetry again. Not a lot. A handful a year. Most of them got used in worship at the old Congregational Unitarian Church in Woodstock. Latter a little on line weekly newsletter, UUNews, began to feature a poem from me weekly. I was being actually read by literally dozens. Suddenly I was a poet.
One thing led to another, and eventually editors at Skinner House Books in Boston, an imprint of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), asked me to assemble a collection for their venerable Meditation Manual. We Build Temples in the Heart came out in 2004 and included that fatal first poem.
Here it is, for absolutely no good reason except that the weather this morning reminded me of it
Mourning Dove Day Elegy
Under the mourning dove-wing sky,
last week’s snow lay thick and firm
beneath my hurried boots.
The unfollowed hearse heaved by
and rolled to a rest by a brown pavilion.
Two workmen, mittened and hooded,
smothered in goose down, waited
as a thin young man, dignified in wool
and slick-soled, opened the hearse door.
Erect, carved, and curved,
the monument stood stolid as the century, \
a Fine Old Family lay about
waiting perhaps the final prodigal return.
The absence of mourners did not move me—
the shriveled flesh lay boxed,
unknowing and uncaring
like any idle refuse.
In my unbroken pace
I could sing Ecclesiastes in my heart,
ponder Fate and Providence,
and stand for all the unmade footprints
in the snow.
No sobbing spouse was here,
no brother, sister, child, or fellow worker,
no neighbor, no wave and nod acquaintance,
all gone themselves,
scattered recklessly across the globe,
lost in forgotten estrangements,
or sequestered in infirmity
waiting vacantly their turn.
Here they were not missed,
but when the spark of mystery
last animated that corpse
in the final hours,
there must have been
the unheld hand,
the unwiped tear,
the unshared memory.
Under the mourning dove-wing sky,
I shivered and hurried on.