ELEGY WITH AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CHRISTMAS CONCERT STREAMING THROUGH IT
Every poem needs something holy to hold it.
Why should this one be any different?
There was a boy. And on a gray day
like every other New England winter day,
he was gone. And the news says nothing
of accidents or illness. And he was only 19.
Death hits hard, then lingers
like salts undissolved in a bath drawn too cool
or the hot faucet’s finicky drip,
and like the half-prayer Picassoed
in memory—I believe in, I believe—though I swore
off church decades ago. Lingers like the smoke
from the neighbor’s wood stove, settling
into the cedars at dusk, like the snow pile
plowed into the end of the drive.
There is nothing to be done
for now—me too sick to shovel or travel
and my husband on a quick trip
back home to see our niece in a school concert.
I watch on a video feed—so graveled
I can’t tell my niece from other kids flailing
their arms in dubious time to some tune I don’t recall.
Some kids move toward the mics, then pell-mell
themselves back to the risers while
other kids drift forward. Some puff recorders
while others twirl long sticks with silver ribbons.
In between, there is singing—in English,
Spanish and French. Blessed. Jesus. Joyeux.
My husband texts our niece is wearing a white shawl.
That doesn’t help at all. And now haul out the holly
has made a home in my head. Is there anything worse
than the insistent happiness of Christmas music?
Perhaps the crowds. On the phone,
I tell him we’re slated for three days of rain.
And the dogs are fine. We are fine. And is your suit clean?
The funeral is two days after you return.
I would like to say I knew the boy,
but I met him just once. A grocery
store conversation with his Mom,
a colleague and friend.
What did we discuss beyond hellos?
Our fading summers? The slow crawl
to a new semester? A garden’s tomato harvest
or lack of? The blight? A yard
in need of mowing? We should
get together for coffee, we said.
And off we went. When the concert closes,
announcements are made. Please meet your child
in. Please take your child’s art. Make sure no coats
are left behind. Have a Merry Christmas.
When the feed stops streaming,
I turn to television, a steady
dose of crime shows, quippy lines
delivered poorly and a plot that plods along
to a tidy end.
—from Rattle #55, Spring 2017
Leah Nielsen: “My mother read to me every day when I was young. I was particularly fond of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, so her burden was great. She fed me the words I loved even when they drove her crazy. Then my father passed away. I’m almost a decade past the age he was when he died, 40. His death framed my entire life, my world-view. I developed a dark sense of humor, one that I now understand is also part and parcel of being a Gen-Xer. If I see a dead bug in the dog’s outdoor water bowl, I think, what a horrible way to die before I think, hey, I should water the dog. Writing poetry reminds me I am alive, though it almost always fails to bring back the dead. Still, I try.”