See how those savage peoples prettified
their fathers' and their mothers' skeletons
with cochineal and cowrie, with fish
bones and feathers, how they enhanced the well-
polished molars in the jaws and rimmed
the sockets of the great-gaped eyes
with nacreous mosaics made of oyster-shells.
Just so in memory we festoon our dead
with assuaging plumes. The envy of their eyes
we plug with pearl. Their discontented mouths
we rouge with rich pigments quarried from
old hand-me-downs. We cover the bitterness
that seamed their cheeks. We make their claspless fingers
beautiful. The flesh that weighed on them
has dropped away. The ravages of hope
have dimmed at last. We gloss their stripped bones
with bright anecdotes, we sprig them with our fond
and desolate endearments, sleeve-rubbed till they shine.
One day we'll learn to make them whole again.
One day remembrance will bind up their wounds
without insult to their scars.
Their wounds still smart in us, what life
made of them still needles us, we
who knew their innocence and pride.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 4, on page 34
Copyright © 2022 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com