for our friend Jim Hogler, Lt. Colonel, U. S. Army
Filling the street like so many runners gathered to start a race
Wearing black funereal suits, dresses or raincoats
Against the steady drip of water from overhanging trees,
We stretched to see between the upheld umbrellas a caisson, four horses and
Two riders standing beside the hearse awaiting
The flag-draped casket covered with plastic against the rain
While the service band played “Be Thou My Vision.”
Then, ten beats of silence, and the brasses and drummer
Resumed with “It Is Well with My Soul.”
That over, the funeral director asked us in practiced tones
To return to our cars to join the procession,
Or to walk behind the two-wheeled artillery cart
That pulled off with slow step, looming through the rain
Like a half-forgotten scene from the past.
Silent, we went back to our cars and prepared to follow.
Ahead of us twenty-five members of the family who somberly paced
The quarter-mile to the grave site while we idled behind them.
Near the gravesite we picked our way forward to stand once again
Behind a multicolored wall of umbrella canopies upheld against the rain.
We heard rather than saw the casket’s slow backward progress off the caisson
Although we saw it in our mind’s eye, a remnant from those grainy black-and-white
Television pictures of John Kennedy’s funeral, the flag-draped coffin
Inching backward oh so slowly, the heavy burden tenderly borne by
Young men immaculate and expressionless in their uniforms,
Moving, well-rehearsed, to carry their commander-in-chief to his grave
Overlooking Memorial Bridge, not a quarter-mile from where we stood, waiting.
The rollers on the caisson squeaked, the only sound at that moment,
A sound somehow suited for outworn rusted axles, outworn beings, burial and death.
The casket out, the young soldiers carefully, solemnly, lifted their burden,
Carrying one who through his work and service had carried them before they knew,
Before they were aware of the sacrifices he had made. They were returned that gift
As did the nation. As did we with our sacrifice of time and presence on this overcast
Sullen day. The honor guard stepped deliberately through wet longish grass
And we followed.
I thought of Whitman, who nursed soldiers and wrote letters for them and cared for them
And mourned them when they died, and wrote poems for them, including these lines
From Leaves of Grass:
And now [the grass] seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them (,)
Who knows what any of us might have don?. We are only aware of what we have done
And know those whom we have known, including the one we follow for the last time today
Who had been followed by so many, inevitably come to lie beneath the grass
In some place, in a place of sorrow and beauty much like this.
We stood in rows behind the family and close friends, silent,
The only human sound the chaplain speaking of the place
And the sacred earth that cannot be bought but must be earned.
And so, we consigned our friend, relative, co-worker, fellow human being
To Whitman’s grass. Again I heard rather than saw
The meticulous folding of the flag and caught a glimpse of the soldier’s face
As he spoke these words,
On behalf of the President of the United States and the people of a grateful nation,
May I present this flag as a token of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service
Your loved one rendered this nation.
After those familiar words, an equally familiar prayer.
A shot split the silence, then another, and another, a three-gun salute.
The band, now across the way, played “America.”
A few people sang, and unseen aircraft taking off from National Airport
Soon rose above the clouds where the whine of their turbines
Obscured both voice and band for a moment
And we on the ground did not glimpse the Boeings bound
For places that some had just sung about, and,
The service finished, we returned to our cars and to our lives
After this journey to a kind of Middle-earth
Not the one of the lives we lead
Nor the life to come,
But a transient place of passing
To which we all shall, in due time, retire.
May 12, 2016
2 responses to “Burial at Arlington”
Nice poem, Dan. Vivid. I can see it all. And your endings always tell me something I need to know.
Thanks, Colleen. This one was more of a stretch for me, considering the subject and the length. Your comment that my endings always tell you something you need to know is insightful and important since any piece of writing should contain only the essentials, and it is my aim to have you (the reader) come away with a new realization or way of looking at the world. Thanks, English 410–Theory of Poetry.