Salarium

Death Valley
is not the biblical Valley of Death.

The Valley of Bones
is a place paleontologists work

excavating dinosaurs—
not the twenty-seventeen adventure movie.

Death dressed in flesh
walked all three

thumbing for a ride in a car
with air conditioning.

The air conditioning immediately broke
in every car Death entered.

If you (on your own)
manage to cross the alkaline ground

you have proved
to be worth your salt

since your parched lips
and skin will be crusted in its dust.

copyright © 2022 Kenneth P. Gurney

Composer

For the seventh cavalry
the turnpike to heaven
passes Muskogee
and the parade of coffins
look like soapbox derby racers
a little short on paint.

Charon operates
the tollbooth
for the bridge span
over the Arkansas River
to finance a meeting hall
in a retired steamboat
for all the soldiers’ widows
in a state of mental imbalance
due to loneliness.

Four of those women
play Mozart and Bach
as a string quartet
from sheet music
on the front bow of the ship
near where new women
join the floating refuge
from brass bugle calls
written by Dan Butterfield.

copyright © 2022 Kenneth P. Gurney

Greener Grasses

In my month of tending family plots
in the village cemetery
I noticed not one member of my family
rested for eternity within this gated community.

My tendency to open whiskey bottles
folks left for the dead
went unnoticed
as acorns fell from stately oaks.

I set shot glasses into the sod
and filled the clear glass to the white line
only to learn my efforts turned
a stray dog into a lush.

I wondered if the little dolls
leaned against gravestones
felt abandoned by the survivors
or were happy to be by their loved one?

Once they wilted, I removed all the flowers
that failed to fill open wounds
of the huddled bereaved
who muttered words they meant to say in life.

Some days whispers licked my ears
and I thought the dead a bit forward
with all their advice on how to outlast
bottles and jukebox dancing to last call.

copyright © 2022 Kenneth P. Gurney

Sorrow

When Lori cries
the temperature of the air rises
and gains a hint of lilacs.

But the air refuses
to carry the sound of her crying
more than three feet.

Lori is so full of sadness.
Her body tries to empty
that fullness

but her sadness
sends spring flowers
to an unmarked gravesite.

copyright © 2022 Kenneth P. Gurney

Father

I understand now.
I am slow. It took me some time.
Only the living change clothes
and addresses.

Oh! That explains why burial crypts
have many drawers—
none filled with shirts
or undergarments.

Last week I looked at your headstone
and wondered why
with all our technology
the stone is not shaped like your head.

I placed a Brooks Brothers catalogue
in your grave before the dirt covered you.

copyright © 2022 Kenneth P. Gurney

postscript

This poem is about a father—not my father.

I Started Dying a Long Time Ago But I am a Slow Learner

Since I reached puberty
Doctors spoke to me more about
tombstones rather than medicine.

They suggested something simple
like the white marble of Arlington
instead of angelic statuary.

Others suggested fire.
I think those doctors wished to destroy
the chemical footprint

they placed in my body
with copious prescriptions
that had little to no effect.

I have been dying since
four-fifty-one when I started writing this
but in tiny increments

that delay the inevitable
and provide me an opportunity
to sell one investment or another

to purchase a plane ticket to Hawaii
for some tropical sun and a chance
for you to practice your grieving all alone.

copyright © 2022 Kenneth P. Gurney

Errand

Through the fourteen stations of the cross
Paul said nothing while groping around
for what was holy about this montage.

The only remaining voice in his head said
You are closer to God than his heart breaking.
I love you
.

The elongation of late afternoon light
colored the garden walkway
with golden hues.

He knew he should be going—
away from other people’s holy space
leaving a ripple of air behind him.

There were so many spirits lingering here
unaware Charon’s pier was not
at the entry to these stations.

The weary sighs of the waiting
tore at him like he was a blessed loaf of bread
on a pedestrian altar.

He sensed this was not a typical day.
The voice behind and below his right ear said
Whistle a happy tune.

As he whistled bird calls he thought
how Pied Piper of Hamelin
to lead the dead away from the churchyard.

They followed him to the stonewall
at the edge of an orchard outside of town.
They rushed over the river of the setting sun’s rays.

Heading home Paul passed the churchyard
and in the dusk saw how much brighter
the stain glass parables shown illuminated from the inside.

As he entered his warm home
he knew he did not understand his madness
or ill-defined beliefs.

copyright © 2022 Kenneth P. Gurney

Photo Optics

Whenever Paul viewed photos
he saw the subjects pulse with life
or lay perfectly still in death.

This worked for both people and animals.
It worked for forests but not individual trees.
Mountains always pulsed.

Once when looking through a family album
he saw his uncle’s photo pulse irregularly
then become still.

The family buried the uncle a week later
in a sluggish ceremony with blue filters
to accentuate the somber mood.

No cameras recorded the wailing
the simple headstone
or any of the muttered blessings.

copyright © 2022 Kenneth P. Gurney

note

A couple Fridays ago, my turn at being the Poet in the Library took place. This reading series was organized by Albuquerque poet laureate Mary Oishi. The reading was filmed and posted to YouTube. To view it click here.

Greyed Posts Below the Tree Line

In my month of cleaning the mountain
I learned the location of old grave stones.

Butchered animal bones littered
the dirt inside an old stone foundation

along with rusty accouterments
and leather scraps.

Misplaced nut and fruit trees struggled
to ignore the blind rag doll half-buried in pine needles.

A snake escaped through last year’s leaves
making a grating sound that curled my spine.

For all my washing the whispers of the dead
lay insulated under the soil.

A rusted and shivered muzzleloading musket
spoke of open wounds run red

but not the gravedigger or stone carver
or what dangerous cure was in cobalt blue shards.

copyright © 2022 Kenneth P. Gurney