Sunday, September 25, 2011

Notes for a Book of the Dead

I heard the dead whine like a bobcat in the pasture field.
Like a baby crouching in the grass near the springhouse
when the harvest weighs heavy on the stalk
and dew soaks your shoes.

Grandfather strode like an initiate of an earth goddess
down the country road with a wet-born calf in his arms.
Grandmother cut dawn's darkness with her flashlight
The air charged with magic and primordial calm.
The valley alive with mystery time alone can breed.
Binding together wheat stalk and hay bale
and mocking the hours like a catbird on the limb.

The dead disappear and are seen no more.
Their work rusts in the yard and their gardens decay.
Their eyes do not pierce the neon lights from the other side.
Their statues sweat no blood.
What they said is lost (no less what it meant).
A black car drove up and took them off.
They walked the trail of tears and bore the pain.
They died without name and address.
Some loved. Others hated and despised.
(Better dead and not remembered again)
No one to find them in their city lost to time.

The unspeakable crimes unsaid and unavenged.
There are no sacred words to open death's doors.
The dead seek rest and remembrance
on the tongues and in the souls
of the sick and diseased and hound their dreams.

Along the fragile mud banks
wailing boy and pouting girl
follow bloody spoor and echoing, hungry cry
from sheepfold to grave,
where the young god lies entombed.
Rice bowls are empty in temple gardens
as the vulture soars in ritual helix down the sky.
In drought time at the festival of light,
king and bride join in sanctuary bed.

The people huddle at the dry river banks
and pray for flood tide, life-quest and rebirth.
In the land between two rivers,
death gives birth to wisdom.
The dead embark from valley steps
to the land of the sun,
and the true measure of life
is not how many men you killed or slaves
to serve you in the next world
but whether you hurt anyone or not.

The stations of the modern underworld bear sounds
like Treblinka, Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen.
The hieroglyphics of the book of our dead,
starkly naked, brutal depicting our nothingness.
The animal unveiled beneath pince-nez.
The angel slashed, burned, gouged, gassed, and shot.
A thin hand raises a cigarette to parched lips.
Toothless mouths gum green bread from the pit pigs swill in.
Lurid pictures obscene in their cruelty,
no mystery. The human husk ripped open without shame.
Spread-eagled legs bent back. Throat crushed.
The raped soul shot nude for postcards
the possessed will buy.

In my prayer to compassion's God,
to what high place should I climb
for those who died forgotten by us?
The past just a trick of words and memory.
Cut wounds deep in flesh.
Bury the tokens under moss and roots,
and ask forgiveness for not being there
in the terror that should be shared.

Where the walls are scrubbed clean
and bone shoveled into the common urn,
light a candle for the dead
where they watch from crumbling photographs.
And do not forget the winter night
that splintered like crystal on the streets
when the radio called them into the open maw
of factory gate and shower and bitter flame.

Time cannot fill the vacuum they left.
The dead need remembrance in rites
that strip bare the soul and throw it
to the ground in tongues they speak to us.
A language that solves all riddles and crimes.
That unmasks the sham and lie of the daily routine,
and leads truth seekers to open the graves
that schoolbooks do not write about.
For those who drank at the pit's lip
and sank into mass graves,
whose naked bodies the pictures show,
flesh melting into flesh in a dirt hole.

I ask to be like those who came out of it
and see now beyond death's frontiers.
Who saw new life root in ruins.
Whose breath once choked on hope.
Who put a knife to the camp guard's throat
but let him go when wrath
and suffering became a vision of dignity
uninvoked by gore on human hands.

And who, when ecstatic cry fills the room,
open the door at night to the tomb
and bring bright linen shrouds
to those who died cold, unclothed, and unjustly.

(c) copyright 2011 Charles David Miller. All rights reserved.


  1. epic in scope many die we never really even know about and those we do become those statues but what they did is gone beyond what they choose to highlight in class...or who we choose to pass along in the stories we tell our families...

  2. This is very well done, and really speaks to the constant struggle to understand the cruelty we find in this world.

  3. Long, but can any poem be long enough to really exhaust this topic? You've done a lot with it, a fine and strong finish, plenty of serious and tough language, disturbing and vital images--the contrast between the ancient book of the dead--where one's heart must weigh lighter than a feather--and the drek of modern times, the slag we all carry as our heritage towards that dead man's home--your hard labor bears fruit in this one.

  4. oh my charles..what a read...dachau, ausschwitz...raw and tough read this and the last stanza is just killer..gave me goose bumps..

  5. A deep and intense poem Charles....amazing writing!

  6. What a read, Chaz! I'm chilled concentrating on the death camps. And thrilled at your use of language. And ode to the dead..never to be forgotten, or forget how they died. And to remember that it is the dead upon whose backs we climb to be here, loved or despised. This is a memorable write..for content, for language. Thank you!

  7. nice to revisit this one...a few highlights...the true measure of life
    is not how many men you killed or slaves
    to serve you in the next world
    but whether you hurt anyone or not....i know it is impossible to go through life and hurt no one, but i do think how we treat others is def indicative of our inner life where it really matters....the bit on the forgotten dead pings my heart a bit as well....and i like the tie you make between life and death...they def are not seperate...

  8. great to re-read after a while... what touched me most in this read was..
    I ask to be like those who came out of it
    and see now beyond death's frontiers.

    and that whole last part...

    And who, when ecstatic cry fills the room,
    open the door at night to the tomb
    and bring bright linen shrouds
    to those who died cold, unclothed, and unjustly

  9. What a powerful poem, Charles. So much to take in and so hard as it were to swallow. I always feel it takes tremendous courage and breadth of vision to confront these things. This feels like an elegy for humankind, or an elegy for the death of evil. We poets, I feel, are often afflicted with the power of witness as opposed to the benign being gifted with it-- check out Charles Ades Fishman's poetry of the Holocaust. I reviewed a collection of his a time back at Loquaciously Yours I thought missed the mark entirely but his other work fabulous. I loved these images:

    The animal unveiled beneath pince-nez.
    The angel slashed, burned, gouged, gassed, and shot.

    Le mot juste-- pince-nez. you might want to footnote that at some pt, lol. xj

  10. My heart is heavy now. Your write chronicles humanity's dark side, making me wonder where it is in me and at the same time, not wanting to discover it. Your writing is so sharp, like a dagger to the soul. And that is art.

  11. An amazing dad was a holocaust survivor..heavy..I've been writing down my aunt's memories of the war as a child. So much history and pain.

  12. One I'll need to revisit for the wealth and aching, rocking, wailing breadth of it. I agree with Myrna, this is art.

  13. So much more than poetry, and so much to digest with all the layers, a truly epic piece of craft

  14. The trail of tears was sad, Cherokee nation left but not fully lost as they have the most tribes I think that are still around today. I don't know if you meant the Native Americans, but, it's what I thought of as read your true to life work. Good read

  15. For some reason, this hurt more on the second read, or I've forgotten the hurt from the first, which also happens and is one of life's gifts...that pain, and the dead and the terrible nature of the beast, can be left behind after awhile because it is never as important compared to joy and what we can build that matters. Which I think is also here, or at lest the hope for it. Thanks for the opportunity to read it again.

  16. This is epic, and haunting, and leaves me heartbroken. You cut right to the quick with these words, a diatribe on the hollowness of humanity.

    I will remember this poem, always.

  17. Amazing - love the imagery

  18. I think that the lines that have touched me most in this amazing poem are...
    "in the land between two rivers, death gives birth to wisdom"...and in all of this sadness and horror, that is what I would hope and pray for. So although this doesn't hold back on the reality , in there is the candle flame of hope for a future. ?

  19. Chilling read for all of its truths. Mankind hasn't moved very far away from remaining barbaric, not at all really. When you think of the atrocities happening all over the world, the torture, the rapes, the oppression. We are still only one step away from being cavemen. This is so powerful Charles, disturbing in its vivid imagery and yet, it's something that ought to never be forgotten.

  20. Captivating read, poignant. It brought to mind a time when I was visiting a museum that had a section dedicated to the documentation of the atrocities of Auschwitz. It was hard to look at, I'll admit I struggled not to look away. The pictures though beckoned..."Remember us..." I hope we do.

  21. Chilling powerful write Charles and sadly we do forget, will forget and will not learn.

    Anna :o]

    1. TY Anna for your comment. We do not learn, I agree. That is an individual task, undertaken to become moral beings, I think. I really feel that the possibility for such crimes is an ever-present reality in the modern world. Present politics here in the US and abroad make that manifestly clear. The conditions for their occurrence, as outlined by Zygmunt Bauman in his book on the Holocaust, have not been addressed. I also believe, however, that a spiritual component must accompany this analysis. That comes from what Hajime Tanabe calls metanoetics.

  22. What a piece! I am moved. You are so wise to honor and remember the forgotten. Thanks for helping us to do the same. :)

  23. Through all this can we salvage mankind

  24. Hi Charles, an epic (as others have said) poem - a tome of sorts - not to speak belittlingly - or exaggerating either - this reminds me of parts of Dante. I have not read that much Dante - but picked up the Purgatorio the other day from among my daughter's books, and you evoke that same dull but tormented horror - and like Ursula LeGuin too--I'm thinking of the Ged books if you've read them (The Wizard of Earthsea) but, of course, you do it in your own way, with your own stamp, a unique kind of horror. Hope and beauty in the end, though I don't know about the camp guard - that would be my feeling too--and the Christian/Buddhist ideal - (one has to really get go of results to try it though--)

    You work is so hard-worked. Really inspiring, thought-provoking, something to be found in a book rather than blog truly, where so much posted is so day-in, day-out - great stuff surely, but perhaps less mulled.

    If you go to mine--and please don't feel any compulsion - I think you'd like the one I put up today better than the OLN one--today's also about death and more serious, the OLN one kind of tongue in cheek. k.

  25. And, of course, it invokes the Inferno - which I have read- but it was the Purgatorio I was thinking of = that torpor of torment. k.

  26. Very powerful indeed Charles, I read it and read it again. Thank you, its my favourite yet.

  27. Lyrical, mythical, beautiful, sorrowful, sublime.