Saturday, March 9, 2013

Who knows the dreams that lie here buried?

After finishing Ellen Terry & Bernard Shaw: A Correspondence, my sole focus, at least for the moment, is another volume I mentioned a few days ago, An Anthology of American Poetry: Lyric America, 1630-1930, edited by Alfred Kreymborg. I have a number of poetry anthologies, or at least anthologies that include poetry — seventy, according to this search of my online catalog. My reason for reading American Poetry is simple: it’s one of my most recent acquisitions, I like the paper, and I like the way it smells.

Now, while I feel no need to discuss poetry anthologies per se — often a source of contention among the more learnèd poets of our age — I thought I might, however briefly, share my impression thus far of the one at hand. I’m on Page 255, having just finished the fifth section, which ends with these wise words from Stephen Crane:

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

I love that.

My impression is this: I have these past few days been walking through a most pleasant graveyard. And like each stone with its name carved thereon, each poem, each voice in this book, is out of context, yet somehow comfortable in its present home. I love that too. The largest stones from where I stand and pause (to the insistent rhyme of a far-off ocean) belong to Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. But there is something to admire about each of the others, who, at the very least, tried, and lived, and tried to live (and here a hawk soars overhead).

I suppose this is why, this morning, while I was in the shower, the very first Notebook entry in my old website came to mind, and why I thought to share it here:

Who knows the dreams that lie here buried?

About a mile down the road from the house where I grew up, there is a little cemetery situated on a corner knoll where the soil is a light, sandy gray.

Surrounded by a plain iron fence and without any grass, the entire grounds occupy no more than a third of an acre. The place is kept company by squirrels, rabbits, lizards, and a variety of birds that raid the nearby vineyards and orchards. A tiny shed used by the caretaker stands in the center of the lot.

As best as I can remember, I knew only one of the people buried in this unassuming spot, and that man was our family doctor, who very early one Monday morning did me the lifesaving favor of removing my appendix when it was ripe and ready to burst.

Once or twice a year the cemetery welcomes someone new to its number and a procession of cars will pass by our old home place.

As a kid, I remember many times standing and watching with my father as a long line of cars drove slowly by. We always took off our hats and would stop whatever it was we were doing until everyone had passed.

During my grade school years, the bus I rode used to turn at the cemetery corner, and I would always look to see if there had been any activity.

More likely than not the place was completely undisturbed. But occasionally I would note with satisfaction a recently raked and burned pile of leaves, or the door of the caretaker’s shed standing open and a rake or shovel leaning against the building.

I didn’t think much about eternity in those days. To me, the cemetery was just another place. Still, it was a place that belonged, every bit as much as the farm houses, barns, and chicken coops that shared the neighborhood. I liked having it nearby.

Little by little, as the noticing, acknowledging and recording of death became part of my own life, I began to make a point of paying an occasional visit to other cemeteries, especially the smaller ones scattered around the countryside.

I’ve never had much of a feeling for the newer places, whose tidy flat stones and lack of trees seem altogether too precise and formal. To me, a cemetery needs to be a little careless, and, above all, its stones must be vertical, despite the modern practical concerns of lawn mowing equipment and hourly wages.

Our lives, certainly, are not lived so uniformly, and this last attempt at restoring order seems silly and out of place.

To me, a cemetery is not a morbid place. Cemeteries are marble orchards, bone yards, boot hills, and a fact of life.

And, though we seldom mention it, they are also artificial communities of people who, when living, may well have hated each other, stolen from each other, and cheated on each other’s wives and husbands.

Ah, well. Some things never change.

But the thing I like most about cemeteries, and the reason I visit them, is that they give me a chance to stop and puzzle over the stories each marker represents.

As one of my all-time favorite inscriptions goes, “Who knows the dreams that lie here buried?”

Who knows, indeed?

Neither you nor I.

It is impossible to know.

But I do think it’s worthwhile to make a guess. Because, in so doing, we might remember once again what our own dreams are.


Brad C. Thome said...

You are amazing my friend...


William Michaelian said...

Brad, thanks for joining me on today’s ramble.

Jonathan Chant said...

Let me echo Brad. Lovely post William.

L.W.Roth, said...

Wonderful post JJ! Very well written. Poetic. I, too, am fascinated by cemeteries. Visiting my parents is anything but a solemn occasion. They rest with their buddies in life. I like to think there's a hot gin game going on somewhere beyond. I like the upright stones--designed my own once. I've photographed cemeteries. One photo was particularly memorable. The cemetery was next to a nursing home and when I stood in just the right spot, the name over the door of the nursing home could be read through the pillars and stones marking the graves. Some thought the photo was morbid. I thought it was indicative of how things actually go. Cemeteries serve. They say get off your ass and live, for forever is as nonexistent as perfection.

William Michaelian said...

Thank you, Jonathan.

L.W., thank you too. Your lovely observation reminds me of a short story called “Bobok,” by Dostoevsky, in which the folks in the cemetery aren’t content to just lie there, instead carrying on their feuds and follies quite vocally, much to the puzzlement and chagrin of the narrator.

Paul L. Martin said...

I cannot read this without a cascade of emotion. Dust to dust...

William Michaelian said...

Deepest thanks as always, Paul. I’m glad you find it meaningful.