At the Cemetery

“Drowned together while playing
with a sled on the ice of the Saw
Mill Pond at Kensico. Dec. 5, 1871.” —gravestone inscription

She pauses here, what has been done?
One stone in fact, yet three in one
And there beneath, what does that say?
Upon her knees as if to pray

She reads the words that still retain
The sharpest edge of searing pain;
The crushing weight of timeless grief
From which there can be no relief.

Now knowing what it means to grieve
She rises up and takes her leave
And with her too, as she departs,
These children’s parents’ broken hearts.

They could have simply been interred
But now their story has been heard.

 

A Bat Flu Haiku

The epicenter.
Grave from which the brave have flown.
Who dares to enter?

 

We’ll Get Through This Together

This massive but inviting door,
I never found it locked before.
So now upon these steps I kneel
And still your presence, Lord I feel.

Behind me breathes a living hell,
Behind their masks, the fetid smell
Of fear exhaled with every breath—
The walking dead, afraid of death.

The world, I fear, will never see
The obvious futility
Of placing between You and me
This heavy, oaken, bolted door

That they may open, nevermore.
That they may open, nevermore.

 

 

Joe Tessitore is a retired New York City resident and poet.


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28 Responses

  1. J. C. MacKenzie

    In my humble opinion, the iambic tetrameter quatrain can be effective for the subject of grief, if one considers, for example, Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” where the poet uses the form lyrically. But in order fully to unravel his grief, Tennyson requires over a hundred sections in that poem (which is his masterpiece).

    In my humble opinion, “At the Graveyard” simply records the fact that the parents of the drowning victims had broken hearts. There is a way in which the inscription on the gravestone is much more powerful than the poem that is supposedly taking it as its subject. What I am suggesting in all sincerity is that the poem simply states a possible “given.”

    I would suggest, quite humbly, that three quatrains and a couplet are too small a space for any real reflection on the gravestone. In other words, modernism’s insistence on miniatures deprives readers of a real experience. Consider all the possibilities if a larger form had been used: The trees in the graveyard, the time of year, the light, descriptions of the state of the children as they went out with their sled collectively or individually, how the mother said farewell to them as they went out the door, and so forth. We know no more about the children having read the poem than what the inscription gives us.

    Also, one must be very careful that the stresses of the iambic tetrameter do not fall like a thud each and every time. I call this the “broken washing machine tetrameter.” One of its causes is the absolute refusal to vary the stresses. Another is forcing it to espouse a sense that is not proper to it.

    Finally, the iambic tetrameter quatrain cannot serve absolutely every purpose in and of itself. If there is a story to be told, there are various ballad stanzas, for example, that might be considered.

    Nevertheless, “At the Graveyard” is fifty million times better than some of the recent “pouting poems”—all wimpish and effeminate—which I have had the misfortune of reading in this venue.

    I appreciate the irony of “We’ll Get Through This Together” which goes to the very heart of communism’s program for the pandemic.

    Reply
  2. J. C. MacKenzie

    One more note.

    “We’ll Get Through This Together” is the best poem I have read on the pandemic. It could not be more effective, something to share, to be sure. The essence of the piece is in the verse:

    “The walking dead, afraid of death.”

    For, indeed, one of the sadder revelations of the present period (which I am calling the Great Mistake), is that ours is not a Christian nation. Two centuries were not enough to bring it out of its original apostasy.

    Reply
    • Joe Tessitore

      Thank you for your comments on “We’ll Get Through This Together”.
      Your “Great Mistake” stopped me in my tracks. What do you believe the mistake is/was?
      Mrs. T and I would go a step beyond “ours is not a Christian nation” and wonder if, indeed, we are a nation at all.

      Reply
  3. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    I vehemently disagree with Mr. MacKenzie. Mr. Tessitore, “At the Cemetery” is an admirably crafted and beautiful poem that has touched my heart, and this is why:

    It goes way beyond simply recording facts. It paints a tangible picture of a woman bending to her knees to read every parent’s worst nightmare etched on a tombstone. It paints the picture of a lady consumed by those feelings, standing up with the weight of that raw grief in her heart as if time has done nothing to heal it. These words say it all perfectly; “ She rises up and takes her leave/And with her too, as she departs,/These children’s parents’ broken hearts.”.

    In my forthright opinion, this poem is the perfect length to capture the grief, and you have done just that. I don’t need to know the time of day. I don’t need to know about the weather. I don’t need to know what the observer of the epitaph had for breakfast. Your words are enough to convey the raw sorrow of those children’s deaths. One of the saddest stories I ever read was only six words long and your poem brought this story to mind. These are the words: “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn”.

    This poem is a true privilege to read, and does the words on the tombstone every justice. Thank you, Mr. Tessitore.

    Reply
    • Joe Tessitore

      Susan and Joseph Charles,

      I struggled with the poem saying anything further than the inscription, but agree with Susan that the inscription is perhaps the most powerful and comprehensive thing I ever read. In fact the first two words were enough to take my breath away.
      My poem is pretty much a factual account of how it happened – I probably would never even had read the inscription if she hadn’t knelt down and done so first, and then called me over to do the same.

      Reply
      • Joe Tessitore

        P.S. I understand that the “For sale. …” was in response to a challenge to Hemingway to write a short story in ten words or less.

  4. Mike Bryant

    Joe T,
    This site is all about bringing classic techniques into the twenty-first century. You have done precisely that. In the first you use modern language to connect us with an old feeling through images that are accessible to everyone.
    Your Haiku skillfully uses rhyme to update a centuries old form and deliver another stark image.
    And your last is a really memorable and striking call for freedom.
    Maybe you should be giving lessons, too!

    Reply
  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    I agree with everything Mr. MacKenzie has to say about “We’ll Get Through This Together”, and, “The walking dead, afraid of death” is a stroke of poetic genius. Superb!

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Joe – I liked “At the Cemetery” very much (not that there’s anything wrong with the other two), and Tetrameter sonnets are so much more difficult than the usual because the rhyming words are more compressed. Incidentally, I still spell foetid with an “o” which shows how old I am.

      Reply
    • Joe Tessitore

      Susan and Mike,

      Thank you both very much.
      These are the two photos I was referring to, if you should decide to write something together.
      I think if anyone can “be” the parents in this, it’s you.

      And I love the idea of the story continuing to be told, almost 150 years later.

      Reply
      • Mike Bryant

        Joe T,
        We are definitely taking up your challenge. We’ve already decided on a form and a rather vague outline. Sometimes these things almost write themselves. Thanks, again, Susan and me.

      • Susan & Mike

        Thank you for challenge – we’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.

        Parents’ Lament

        All three went out to play that day,
        Our growing girls and boy.
        They took their sled and made their way
        To Saw Mill Pond – what joy!
        Their chatter sang and giggles rang
        Through crisp and crystal air,
        Alive with Winter’s frosted tang
        And fussing words, “Take care!”.

        Five on the dot, each place was set
        For supper when that knock
        Shook house and nerve, we’ll not forget
        The sear of white hot shock.
        What had we done? We should have gone!
        Why weren’t we at their side?
        Two daughters and our only son
        Denied the hands that guide!

        Now laid to rest in Sunday’s best
        Beneath the sweeping sky,
        Three reasons why our lives were blessed
        Before we waved goodbye.
        Our grief is etched upon grey stone
        In heavy hearts clawed sore;
        Raw words that slice through flesh and bone
        And will forevermore.

  6. Rod

    I too love your poem “At the Cemetery”. I am with Susan on that as her comments are spot-on.
    I have nothing good to say about any form of Haiku so I’ll say nothing which I believe is a better policy than lengthy and often hurtful criticism.

    Reply
  7. Julian D. Woodruff

    The thing about this haiku, which is new to my limited experience, is that it not only rhymes, but is perfectly iambic (about which Mr. MacKenzie won’t complain in this case, I hope). It’s almost like an attendee at a mascarade ball–am I right?
    In my mind now, and I’m wondering, Mr. Tessitore, whether also in yours (maybe at the back?), is “Lasciate … intrate .”

    Reply
  8. Charlie Bauer

    Hi Mr. Tessitore,

    I understand Mr. McKenzie’s objection that iambic tetrameter might not have the strength a grieving poem requires and can only offer why it works for me (and only me); I have been taught, and believe, that art is at its best when a reader or viewer can enter into the work. If you were a parent writing about their children’s tombstone in “At the Cemetery” it would seem necessary to write in iambic pentameter. Since you are instead writing as someone who has discovered a gravestone, that allows me to picture myself viewing it and feeling not grief, but sadness, which is infinitely more trivial and this justifies (again, for me) the use of iambic tetrameter.

    I found “We’ll Get Through This Together” very thought provoking; none of us get out of this world alive and the current panic seems to reflect, at least in part, on the continuing degradation and collapse of faith systems which help deal with that hard reality.

    Reply
    • Joe Tessitore

      Here again I would defer to the power of the inscription and (for me, at least) the rather obvious assumption that the parents wrote it.
      The grief cuts into me from the inscription – the poem IS more about coming upon it.

      Reply
    • David Whippman

      Well-crafted pieces. “We’ll get through this together” said a lot for me about how this virus has us cowering like scared rabbits: not that it should be taken lightly, but I think the lockdown will in the end cause far more grief than the disease itself.

      Reply
  9. C.B. Anderson

    Joe,

    You are a rather clever dude, despite the self-denigration you have sometimes indulged in. You have touched some notes that resonate in all of us. I won’t say that it’s great poetry, but I will say that it’s pretty damn good poetry. What’s even more promising is that you seem to have mastered punctuation — a very important element when it comes to driving home the rhetoric of the ideas you intend to convey. Your only problem is that you have the same name as the guy who does the play-by-play on Monday Night Football, and who is about to get fired from that job. By the way, Joe, I’ve always wondered whether you pronounce your last name with a well-defined “e” or allow that final “e” simply to lengthen the “o” that comes before it. In other words, is it TESS-uh-TORE or TESS-uh-TORE-ee? If you wonder why I wonder, it’s just because I try to pay attention to how words are pronounced in the languages where they originated. Thumbs Up!

    Reply
  10. Joe Tessitore

    A neighbor asked me for Knicks tickets when we first moved in to our apartment.
    As far as I know, we’re not related.
    We do pronounce the final “e”, but in an Americanized kind of way (i.e. devoid of music). A true Italian would make my name – Giuseppe Tessitore – sing, and may or may not drop the final vowel, depending on where they’re from.

    I think I’m being more realistic than self-denigrating but, a thumbs-up from you and a compliment from Joseph Charles? Be still, my heart!

    Reply
  11. Jeff Kemper

    I was forced as a college freshman to read Eliot’s “Prufrock” and with no clue to its meaning I just wanted to write poetry. Until now I had no use for the Haiku. Following a reading of “A Bat Flu Haiku” I want to try writing a haiku or two. Thanks for the inspiration! I loved the other two poems too.

    Reply
  12. Joe Tessitore

    Susan and Mike,

    A remarkable poem in a remarkably short length of time – Mrs. T and I are truly impressed!
    Maybe Joseph Charles will grab the baton and carry it across the finish line.
    How cool would that be?

    Thanks as well for the article.
    So much tragedy in one life – hard to wrap your head around it!

    Reply
    • Mike Bryant

      I wonder if the names and ages of the other two children are legible on the tombstone, Joe? We did try to imagine that horrible day, and it wasn’t easy. Thanks

      Reply
    • Mike Bryant

      Hey Joe, in the cool light of morning Susan looked at the poem again and decided to make a small change. What do you think about changing the last line to “Until Forevermore” ?

      Reply
      • Joe Tessitore

        I think “Until Forevermore” is more poetic and maybe even a touch whimsical, when it’s sorely needed.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Mr. Tessitore, I must say I have even greater respect for “At the Cemetery” having undertaken the challenge of writing a poem about raw, tangible grief. Hats off to you, sir. In the fine words of a great contemporary poet; “Damn man… don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re not a poet.”

  13. Sultana Raza

    To Joe Tessitore, it’s interesting to come upon a lament which is not about someone well-known for once. Could this have elements of ‘found poetry,’ as you found these sad words on a gravestone? I appreciated the allusive imagery of ‘sharpest edge,’ ‘crushing weight,’ and ‘no relief.’ Perhaps somewhere the family is grateful that ‘their story has been heard.’ It’s not an easy subject to write about, and you’ve managed to maintain a nice balance between when a poem becomes too mushy, or too distant or even cold. Also, the flow, and the spontaneous feel of the words spooling onto the page.

    Reply

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