by Leah Silvieus
In Xoxocotlán Cemetery tonight, the night before El Día De Los Muertos, life and death sit vigil together: families picnic while setting up shrines for their loved ones, grandmothers hold babies while parents arrange flowers on the headstones. The night is still beneath the nearly full moon, and the air blooms with the scent of marigolds, copal burn, and hot wax. Our local guide hands us each a shot of mescal, along with a candle and bouquets of coxcomb, clover, and baby’s breath. Offerings. Find a grave that has few decorations, he says. Lay your flowers there. I am uneasy with the intimacy of these moments – as outsider among Oaxacan families. The thin curtain between life and death that is almost translucent, here.
* * *
While in Oaxaca for the U.S. Poets in Mexico Conference, I gave a workshop on poems’ endings. We began the workshop discussing what a good poem ending feels like. Almost all of the ways our workshop group described great endings were those of in-betweenness: the pause between inhaling and exhaling a breath, the sensation of standing on a cliff, the moment before flight. The amazing poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar spoke of the poem’s ending as a hinge upon which the poem opens and closes – which reminded me of my favorite mystic of distance and threshold, Simone Weil: “The world is a closed door. It is a barrier. And at the same time, it is the way through.”
I wonder if, on some level, my difficulty in negotiating poems’ endings has something to do with negotiating my own limitations. Diana Fuss writes in Dying Modern: A Meditation on Elegy: “Writing is dying, a way to experience, over and over again, one’s own sudden, inexplicable disappearance.” A poem begins and there are words, and then more words, then no more words. We write and then come to the end of our writing. We send the poem off or put it away for a time. The ending of a poem is a departure. Do we shut the door quickly without looking back? Do we leave it open behind us? Some of the poems’ endings that I’ve struggled with most intensely are those whose stakes are most difficult to face. Given violence, given loss, what is there to say? How can a poem’s ending avoid both sensationalism and pat closure?
I’m not sure of the answers to these questions, but there are poems that give me endings to aspire to, even if I have yet to unravel their mysteries completely. I think of Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song,” one of the first poems that rendered me breathless. Despite the cruelty and the sorrow that occurs in the poem, there is this resonance, this song that echoes throughout the poem and beyond it: “This song / Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.” There is that door again, closing, opening. The song becomes not only about the girl and those boys and her pet goat, Broken Thorn Sweet Blackberry, but also about the songs that rise about the cruelties that inhabit our world. I carry that last line around with me, almost like a mantra. The poem sings beyond itself into the world.
* * *
Among the marble graves overflowing with gladioli and chrysanthemum, there is a flat stone, unlit and dark with weathering, its name and date worn away. I place my flowers there and try to light the candle despite the cold breeze that’s just picked up. As we make our way to cemetery’s entrance where we’ll meet the rest of our group, I see my candle has already gone out.
* * *
“A poem never ends,” one man said to me that week in Oaxaca. “You have your work cut out for you.”
Poems end and they do not end. Poems’ endings are those doors of which Laure-Anne spoke: they are openings. They are invitations back into the world, into other texts, and sometimes back into our own lives. They bear witness to the world by confirming that the last word isn’t the final word. Just as the final line of “Song” leaves us with its bittersweet music, powerful poems’ endings sing us back to their beginnings, as if saying again:
Leah Silvieus is an interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received fellowships from Kundiman and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & Writing, CURA, The Collagist, and diode, among others. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Miami and currently divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her online here.
Photo courtesy of the author.