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El Moley Rachamim

The graves of the ambitious
thrust their granite faces
against the heavens
to argue for immortality,
but the markers of the modest
only interrupt the landscape
to assert that life continues.
Beneath an untrimmed yew,
like a shaggy beard
on the mask of death,
I found the place
where my grandmother
had been buried
beneath the familiar words,
El Moley Rachamim,
chanted then, as they had been,
for thousands of years,
over thousands of graves,
from Zion to Lithuania,
to Brooklyn.
I did not think,
in my adolescent darkness --
for learning requires a lifetime, and more--
of bones
and toothless skulls,
for whom no prayer was uttered,
no symbolic pebbles placed,
no monument with breath to weep,
nor survivors with memory to mourn.
I recall only
my grandmother,
her legs bowed
beneath her years
in the bare apartment
on Hendrix Street,
the slow scratch of her pen
to form the letters of her name,
her gnarled fingers
guiding the point
like a child hunched
over her slate
to inscribe the only words
she had learned to spell,
her shy smile of pleasure,
and embarrassment.
I can bring her back
while I stand
before the stone
just visible beneath the yew.
Those countless others
a mute chorus
of hollow shadows
remembered only
in our abstract grief
like the abiding dust
from which the grass
betweeen the graves grows.

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