16: Dirge

Dirge – A brief hymn or song of lamentation and grief; it was typically composed to be performed at a funeral. In lyric poetry, a dirge tends to be shorter and less meditative than an elegy. – Poetry Foundation

Mourning in Chicago

I lit candles in St Peter’s
or rather I pushed buttons
to activate timed bulbs in plastic candle-shells.

It was the best I could do, not finding
even electric candles in the churches here
but I wish I could have given my dead living flames.

You can cry in a church and no one stares,
a space set aside for our naked selves
as much as for God.

The lights were still up from Christmas
and the manger scene sat dark in the corner.
It was the wrong season for mourning

And my tears were belated anyway, waiting
for this ritual to make real my loss.


This is a poem about mourning for my grandparents and uncles who passed away while I’ve been in the US, so it’s more personal than a lot of what I’ve been writing here so far. The dirge, though, is necessarily a personal form, I think – it’s hard to write about death and mourning in the abstract.

This poem ended up coming as part of one of those odd, unplanned confluences of a theme – here, death. It was Easter, I’d just seen Noah (so good!) and just read Hannah Kent’s amazing Burial Rites, about the last woman to be executed in Iceland. I had also stumbled upon Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Deaths of Children), which are musical settings of a selection of five out of a total 428 poems which Friedrich Ruckert, a 19th C German poet, wrote on the deaths of his children.


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