Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day, Alta Mesa Cemetery & Billy Collins

Alta Mesa Cemetery, very close to my home, is one of my favorite haunts (pun intended). I often walk or ride my bike through the leafy lanes lined with headstones, every now and then, stopping to read the engraved names, dates, inscriptions and images that represent the few lasting historical clues to the lives of the departed.

Life is represented in all its colors here: the joyous inscriptions of lives fully lived "Joanne Smith (1941 - 2004): she made every day feel like Saturday" and the somber laments on children's graves "Jose Antonio (1972): of such is the kingdom of God". All are equal in this final resting place. Steve Jobs and David and Lucille Packard are buried here but their burial sites (which I have not come across yet) are no different than anyone else's. Headstones have Stars of David, Crosses and Crescents, inscriptions in English, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Farsi but all rest peacefully next to each other in the shadow of oak trees. They all understand each other.

Memorial Day is a good day to remember the dead. Today Alta Mesa is full of potted plants, freshly cut flowers, floral wreaths, rainbow pinwheels and little American flags.

Here are some photographs I have taken in Alta Mesa Memorial Park during my visits.

The former American Poet Laureate Billy Collins has a wonderful poem called "Cemetery Ride" in his collection "Horoscopes for the Dead". It is hard to better Collins's evocation of a ride through a similar cemetery.

Cemetery Ride

My new copper-colored bicycle
is looking pretty fine under a blue sky
as I pedal along one of the sandy paths
in the Palm Cemetery here in Florida,

wheeling past the headstones of the Lyons,
the Campbells, the Dunlaps, and the Davenports,
Arthur and Ethel who outlived him by 11 years
I slow down even more to notice,

but not so much as to fall sideways on the ground.
And here's a guy named Happy Grant
next to his wife in their endless bed.
Annie Sue Simms is right there and sounds

a lot more fun than Theodosia S. Hawley.
And good afternoon, Emily Polasek
and to you too, George and Jane Cooper,
facing each other in profile, two sides of a coin.

I wish I could take you all for a ride
in my wire basket on this glorious April day,
not a thing as simple as your name, Bill Smith,
even trickier than Clarence Augustus Coddington.

Then how about just you Enid Parker?
Would you like to gather up your voluminous skirts
and ride sidesaddle on the crossbar
and tell me what happened between 1863 and 1931?

I'll even let you ring the silver bell.
But if you are not ready, I can always ask
Mary Brennan to rise from her long sleep
beneath the swaying gray beards of Spanish moss

and ride with me along these halls of the dead
so I can listen to her strange laughter
as some crows flap in the blue overhead
and the spokes of my wheels catch the dazzling sun.


Florida Poet said...

I have been walking through the Palm Cemetery for decades before Billy Collins ever got there on his bike. It doesn't look like this photo, though. It has dirt roads, it's very small, and it is completely shaded by bearded oaks and palms, all of which give it a very cozy feel. I checked and he used real names for that poem. He's amazing to think of writing such a poem, and I applaud you for going through your cemetery and looking at it through Billy-Collins-colored glasses.

Fawad Zakariya said...

Florida Poet, thanks for the visit and for your comment!! These are the delights of the Internet. How else could I hope to have reached another poet who regularly visits the Palm Cemetery in Billy Collins's footsteps. Thanks also for your description of the Palm and letting me know that the names are real. I had wondered about that and felt a little uncertain about the propriety of using the full names.