There is no poem like a gravestone,
that tersely worded, lapidary tercet,
the name, the numbers, and the R.I.P.
that are the skeleton key to all biography.
Some lie embedded, trapdoors in the grass,
while others rear their monumental
cornices and angels, like cathedrals
where worms receive the body’s bread and wine.
The purest poetry’s in settlers’ gravestones,
the kind you find in small Ohio towns
named for the clan that cleared the woods
and staked their claim by planting loved
ones in the ground like fenceposts. These are names
the rain has made a thousand rubbings of.
It takes a second to subtract in your head
the birth year from the death year and discover
the old, old names like Fannie and Pearl
died when they were three years old.
It’s only the stone’s
sense of timing and command of tone
that lets you glimpse them in their frocks and curls
scurrying down these mouseholes to the underworld.