Towards the Revival of Everyday Courtesies: Funeral Rites

A new poem by John Burnside.

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At one time, we buried our dead
in whalebone and apples,
then lit pale fires between the ghosts

of lilac trees where, once, there would have been
a doorway in the light, from here to where
all blossom vanishes.

We never thought of this
as final, while the blackbirds came and went
from day to night, from memory to ruin,

and somewhere in the house, a clock
kept stopping and starting again
in an empty hall.

It was summer in the crook
of shadow in the stairwell, jam-jars
perched on windowsills, a stray bird

calling in the roof, the windows
open, but no breeze.
Then it was autumn: dewfall in the orchard.

We never thought of this
as permanent, with so much ripening,
May Queen and Laxton’s Fortune, the quiet dead

waiting in the hall beside a covered
mirror, and a year
of windfalls, dropped like footfalls in the night,

an ample sound we did not take for grief,
though all the parish knew
that we were grieving.

John Burnside’s most recent poetry collection is Still Life with Feeding Snake (Jonathan Cape). His novella Havergey was published by Little Toller earlier this year

This article appears in the 07 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move