Paying Respects

I am standing here beside the grave of Randall Jarrell,
and it is not what you would think. Most people today
have trouble even pronouncing his name (trochee
) but he was a poet and critic, not so many years ago,

who inexplicably stepped in front of a passing car,
and thus joined the list of those who have been
taken from us by machines. Think of Isadora’s scarf,
of Gaudi’s body lying unclaimed for three days

after he is run over by a streetcar, of the head-on
collision that killed Nathanael West, even a novelist
named Gene Stratton Porter being conveyed through
Burbank in her limousine when the chauffeur fails

to beat the express train to Sacramento. Albert Camus
riding shotgun in the south of France and encountering
the irreducible existentiality of a tree. It is
a sobering list, and that night in Chapel Hill, North

Carolina, Jarrell had been acting strangely (according
to his wife) and had gone for a walk along a highway.
They buried him a few days later here in Greensboro,
where he had taught. I want to tell you about this place,

an old cemetery at the top of a hill, where I have come
with a colleague, where an important battle was fought
during the Revolutionary War, and a Quaker Meetinghouse
once stood. The Friends did not approve of tombstones,

so everything on this autumn afternoon appears to us
like a green meadow, with the grass cut close, no clouds,
and a few old trees – oaks, I think – catching at the wind.
My friend often comes to walk here. Now she shows me

Jarrell’s grave, marked by a slab of sandstone darker
than any I have ever seen before, an unopenable door
sunk into the earth, and smooth, having no handle,
no embellishments. Caught, almost, in the roots

of the oak shading the stone – the oak shielding the place
where the two of us stand. This was a man with black eyes
and olive skin, remembered as a nimble dancer, one
who loved all things decent and gentle and Viennese,

who left us a poem about how during the Second War
they needed a hose to wash the ball gunner from his turret.
Who, like many poets of his generation, was so depressed
he let doctors shoot electricity through his brain. Trochee,

Randall. Iamb, Jarrell. Vanished, now, through this door,
gone out through the roots of this tree like a piece of paper
cast into a stove, up through the flue and on out
into the wind. This afternoon we have no particular reason

for coming here, except that we admired him. And to see
what sort of inscription they might have given him,
this poet who also volunteered for the Army Air Corps
the moment the war broke out, who trained B-29 navigators,

who knew such planes would rain fire on cities, who wrote
“Man is born in chains, and everywhere we see him dead.”
The stonecutter gave him what mattered: his name,
and a new moon carved in the stone, and one small star.

So for a moment this is what we have come for: silence,
stillness, nothing tangible except our own presence,
and the knowledge that he wrote about men standing
on the decks of aircraft carriers loading cluster bombs

that would be dropped on civilians below, that the pilots
saw flak blooming, and knew it to be beautiful and deadly,
that he chose not to stay home but to go out among people
who made war with brutal machines, and to report back

on what he saw, and to return – outwardly unscathed,
yet riddled by what he had been through. Thereafter,
he flew into poetry’s headwind, knowing it could lift him,
could lift us, even as it was carrying him away from himself,

and on toward some dark place. This dark place. Left,
finally, a poem about the dawn, and a black paperboy
who delivered it daily, Nestus Gurley. In that poem
asks “When I lie coldly . . . in the darkness that is not lit

by anything . . . .” Asks that all of us be illumined by
“our hope: the hope that is not proofed against anything,
but pure and shining as the first, least star that is lost
in the east on the morning of Judgment.” First, least star.

Thus they have given him a star carved on this door
of stone opening into nothingness, into the place where
he waits, where machines cannot find him, where rain
reaches down to him, and the gleam of the first, least star.

Machine. Iamb. Think of that cold morning in 1781,
frontiersmen waiting, sighting down their muskets at Redcoats
advancing. Musket. Trochee. Cornwallis won a battle here
at Guilford Courthouse; the British lost the war. Randall

The Quaker Meetinghouse that once stood here
is gone, too. Imagine the elders in their black coats, waiting
for the right moment to speak. Knowing that it will come,
that it comes, always, and from an inexhaustible source.

© 2005 Jared Carter