To Die at the River

“. . . Train fare is cheaper when you’re alive.”

Hilary Hauck’s poem of the River Ganges is a powerful statement of death and of life.  You can read more about Hilary’s work here.


Street sleepers line both sides of the avenue
like colorful rows of dolls.
They’re old or sick the guide says. Train fare
is cheaper when you’re alive.
He leads us to where time hasn’t changed,
alleys glowing oil-lamp yellow,
so narrow we meld our backs
to the stone walls to let a sacred cow pass.
A loudspeaker chants
impersonal prayers, bells toll.
The buildings end on a terrace
above the cremation ghat,
where lucky bodies bandaged
in cloths wait their turn.
Smoke of flesh emanates,
we cover our faces with scarves
but he says it’s an insult to
imitate Indian dress
so we breathe in the dead.
Only the wealthy can buy
a thick sandalwood pyre,
the poor make do with scant scraps
whose flames are unable to devour whole bones.
Attendants pick through cooling ashes
and body remnants,
pocketing gold the dead
had meant to keep, sweeping
the bones into a basket to be tipped
into the well-fed drift of the
Holy Ganges,
where by day crowds bathe and
float islands of flowers on leaves
and pray for those able to die here,
because they are the ones that escape
the eternal cycle of life,
spared, by moksha, from reincarnation,
released into heaven
for a final kind of death.

– Hilary Hauck

If I Die First

“. . . Store me beside the poetry.”

No one could give better instructions than Wendy DeGroat does in this poem.  Her chapbook Beautiful Machinery was published last year.  You can read more about Wendy here.

After the burning’s done, pour
what’s left in a Mason jar—nothing new,

but one washed clean of applesauce or pickled beets,
the clear kind that kids keep fireflies inside.

Let my cinders rest there
like sand art in jelly jars carried home from the fair.

If the small or gray of me unsettles you,
pin flannel or fleece around the glass,

leaving a gap, thumb-wide, under the rim, enough
to let sun and moonlight in. Store me beside the poetry.

When it feels right, talk to me, sing, or sit by quietly.
For a wheel of seasons, take me down. Hold me open—

to campfires, fallen leaves, a lilac’s laden bough.
Press me deep in moss and snow.

When my birthday comes, add a pinch of salt,
toast to us with good bourbon or dark rum.

And when you’re ready to move on, release me somewhere
we once were. As dust blurs through your fingers,

quick or slow, know I miss your touch, and let me go.

– Wendy DeGroat
  First published in Rust + Moth


One more from Edna St. Vincent Millay before moving back to modern poets.  As a teenager, when I read (and memorized) many of her poems, I loved her dark side.  Here’s one of my favorites.

“Heaven bless the babe,” they said.
“What queer books she must have read!”
(Love, by whom I was beguiled,
Grant I may not bear a child!)

“Little does she guess today
What the world may be,” they say.
(Snow, drift deep and cover
Till the spring my murdered lover!)

– Edna St. Vincent Millay
Published in The Dial, 1918