Judy Kaber is the Poet Laureate of Belfast, Maine, and author of three chapbooks, most recently A Pandemic Alphabet. Her poems have appeared in journals such as Poet Lore, december, Hunger Mountain, and Spillway. She won the 2021 Maine Poetry Contest and was a finalist for a 2022 Maine Literary Award.
When wind is a gray room, while
rain pelts me like husks of grain,
I work among the dead.
Fallen leaves, debris—these I clear
from the graves, as if there is a need for
tidiness, for frail ends to be hauled away.
With a backhoe, I open the face
of the earth, dig nine feet with clean,
even sides. In my body, a wick
shudders. In my body, a dim flame.
I never see the dead, shut up in wooden boxes.
In the cement lined crater, cold
embraces me, holds the door open while I
check for cracks. Before the mourners
come, I position the casket lowering device,
hide the dirt pile under artificial grass,
erect a canopy, arrange chairs. From a distance,
I watch their globed shoulders, feel their thirst
in my mouth, grief shaking them, pressing
against the abruptness of living. After they leave,
I lower the husk of a life into the ground, pile
the cut with dirt, seal it with sod, as if there
had never been a hole, an opening, an echoing maw.
I set the grave marker in concrete.
On bitter days, I reheat my coffee, lean
on the shovel, my gloved hands wrapped tight,
watch feathered clouds trail away.
On other days, when light streaks between
clustered branches, I kneel to plant flowers,
sense their fragile stems, shot through with green.
A heavy stream, all thick brown endurance,
flowed down the banks from melting snow.
Her work done, on her way home, light
lingers behind her. A dangerous way, she knows,
because just last month a car slid into the ditch
late at night and all through the black sorrow,
undiscovered, the young woman hung upside down,
anchored by her seatbelt, beside her dead lover.
She imagines tendrils of the woman’s hair, frozen
in the cold, the night pressing like a knife against
her throat. As she drives, she fingers the loose button
on her coat, watches for icy puddles even though
the road is now free of snow. So easy to lose control, to be
swallowed, thrown down the ditch into a boulder.
That’s when she sees it. A bobcat. Standing
in a melting pool of snow under a fir tree,
a rain of needles around its feet. She slows even more,
wanting to memorize him there in that
hope-blue shadow. Eyes bold statements
that hold her, one leg stretched behind, a wild cat,
ready to move away should the need arise.
Just his presence transforms the road for her.
She sheds the specter of the unlucky couple, lets
the wonder of the bobcat fill her, still,
and so beautiful she has no words, only this—
the blood running in her veins, the thankfulness
of being alive together in the same world.
I abandoned the black truck, apples left
to fall, shadows of raspberry bushes, parts
of a stationary engine, the empty casket of myself—
who I once was, who I thought I could be. Everywhere
the litter of my life, like a scarf torn free, yanked
windward, caught against barbed wire,
people driving past without so much as a honk.
I left the woods behind, and soon I will leave the stream,
its heavy body moving in the dark. I’ve lost gloves,
books, umbrellas, friends, and the way home.
I feel bad about the sand I left at the beach, colors
like whispers that shifted when I approached. There are
other things I miss: names of the boys I slept with, the sad
taste afterwards, the animal in me groaning from giving
so much, the warm beds. I feel the blood in my veins
beating hard against invisible walls. I fear it will erupt.
I’m sorry for all I’ve left behind. All that has slipped away.
All the lists I made. Things I counted on. Recipes. Children’s toys.
Good luck charms. The lucky stone I carried tucked
under my tongue to give me courage, the grit to carry on.