Pine Pitch

From The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. For Jerry Smith.

Clustered around the edges
of my father’s open grave,
the grown-ups lean into one
another like bunches of crows,
pressing their pale wet faces
against the emptiness
of the slate sky gathering
in the late winter wind.
The flapping minister’s robes
sound like sails unfurling
beside the coffin. It is
as if this man carries
the sea inside of him,
the way my father did.
Pine boughs cover the coffin.
Arranged like flowers from one
end to the other, they fill
the air with Christmas smells.
I think of my uncle, climbing
at dusk through falling snow
to do the one thing he could
still do for this man he loved
like a brother. I consider
the tenderness and courage
it must have taken to tear
the branches one by one,
from the mountainside. And how,
when his arms were full of pine,
he ran stumbling down
the trail he had made alone
through the woods. His hands covered
in dark patches of pitch
that stayed on his skin for days.

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