Scrofula by Matt Dennison

Scrofula

After the old man found it, the solitary
upright marker bearing his mother’s
mother’s name, we worked for several days
clearing the small hill of its hundred summers’
growth and then marched with pitchforks,
side by side, shoving their fingers into the ground,
feeling for what had been slowly bowed
and buried by the dull weight of time
that had lain so heavy upon these obstacles
in its path of desired flatness.
And when we felt the grip, the pull,
we would slice the earth and slide
our fingers below, force the cool slabs
against the wind once more, restoring
the eddies and swirls that formed their borders
and lifted our hair as we brushed away dirt,
reading names and dates to each other,
moving hands over faces growing
both older and younger until the entire
hill was awakened and not once did I
think of the skulls that stared
beneath our feet but noticed,
instead, how entire families would be
laid out in descending scales of grief,
all voices stopped within the same small
circle of days and how one family,
from suckling-child to father,
had been Taken By Scrofula
in the winter of 1868, the dark,
earthy sound of which I tried again
and again in the thick summer air, imagining
horses in snow, their hot breath warming hands
in stubble fields and thought it beautiful.
Scrofula, I chanted as I slid the tines in—
scrofula is what I am searching for. It begins
as an unspoken sound of blackness circling
high overhead, looking for someone able
to hear its message of release, to blacken
their lips with the passing of its taste, alone
and then in staggered harmony with those nearby.
It begins as a whisper in a child’s ear
growing louder and louder until no prayer
for health or moan of love can penetrate
the rush of night—so loud his very eyes
become the lips which form the name and all
he can see is the small hill behind the barn
so it is there that he flies to lie in untouched silence,
waiting for the others and those who would come
much later, seeking soft marble.

For two more days we built a fence
around the hill, digging the holes by hand
and tying the posts together in a complicated,
old-fashioned way whose secret of doing
I knew would vanish with the old man
when he heard his own irresistible sound,
the high-whispered calling of his name
in the ultimate foreign tongue.

by Matt Dennison

Editor’s Note: Long sentences and surreality lend this poem a haunting sensibility entirely in keeping with its subject matter. So many lives pass so quickly that when one stumbles upon a buried hint of past tragedy, it’s nearly impossible to ignore.

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