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  • Ritual is firm where life is fickle,
  • Steps in, hands us formula for hurt,
  • Things to do: cross ourselves, stand, bow.
  • There are no words, we protest, but somehow
  • Ritual instructs us what to say;
  • Ritual puts one foot before the other,
  • Addresses wife-made-widow, daughter, brother.
  • Even at the grave, the coffin lowered,
  • We have a little chore, a fist of dirt
  • That tattles on the lid, a gesture toward
  • Real work of burial. And then the group
  • Drives down the mountain to the brisk cafe
  • Where tradition serves the living: bread and pickle,
  • Brandy, bitter coffee, and fish soup.

Granddaddy’s pitch pipe

From the Museum of Obsolete Objects

  • Black battered flying saucer, prop for a film
  • In black and white on half-seen wire suspended,
  • With curious vents, or bays, all round, for sortie
  • By hostile crafts, or drafts, and all defended
  • By symbols, as on the Phaestos disk — with flat
  • And sharp, and clef, a quartered alphabet,
  • Weird round harmonica, metallic, slim,
  • And still true, over time, to A 440.
  • I used to keep it in the fiddle’s case
  • (A fiddle in his case), that velvet-lined
  • Black box heavier than its contents, place
  • To lay the frail, aged instrument, where I’d find
  • The brittle crumbs of resin, an empty chest.
  • (In music, too, they call the silence rest.)

The Arsenic Hour

  • (Google it)
  • The pasta water’s on the boil, and I’m
  • Trying to keep the lid on — have some wine,
  • I tell myself. Now is when baths are drawn
  • Like battle-lines, when long-division, fraught
  • With faux newfangled-ness, must be retaught,
  • Relearned, resentment for the dividends —
  • Quotients, remainders — after all, what’s time
  • But long division? Twenty-fours and twelves,
  • Sixties, sevens, three-hundred sixty-fives,
  • Fractions in which we parcel our prime selves.
  • The phone call is impossible, my friends!
  • Now is the husbandry that falls to wives,
  • Wrestling the insurgence off to sleep,
  • The chore that never ends, until it ends,
  • The work of days, the work that will not keep.

A. E. Stallings is an American poet who lives in Greece. A MacArthur Fellow, her most recent collection is Olives (Northwestern University Press).

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