by Rob Merritt
Let these words here welcome the ghosts. Lay sentences down like amulets upon a columbarium. Stirring in my bones: a poet, an architect, and a man who lost his wife to the 1918 epidemic and sent his children to fine colleges he never could have attended himself. Oh god of ancestors, help me to greet those forerunners at this halfway point of the year, the month my father left his Confederate forebears to be born in Wilmington, North Carolina, to wander by the Cape Fear River in the shadows of that memorial on Market Street (dismantled 2020). Now I cannot ask his ashes what he knew of the massacre of 1898.
I went with my brother to the Sampson/Duplin County line in southeastern North Carolina on a warm January Saturday to find the “other cemetery,” not the well-maintained Oakdale in Wilmington where my father’s parents and brother lay or the wide-open graveyard beside the Methodist church in Magnolia where every other headstone said “Merritt”—and I had never known any of them. We pulled over roadside, jumped over a ditch, pushed through briars and underbrush to a wobbly rusty gate, “Merritt” carved into a low piece of wood. Among the leaning headstones: “Colonel Robert C. Merritt, CSA, Beloved Soldier, Father, Husband and Master.” Soon we were knocking down shots of bourbon at an ocean-side bar at Wrightsville Beach, talking of girls who entranced us in high school.
When I act virtuously, the ghosts whisper approval. When I betray, fail to act, lie, dread, run away, I hear rumbling and watch my projects fail to ignite. What drove me to the petty thefts I pocketed?
I burn incense beside watches and penknives and rings of my parents. I dust the photos of unmet grandparents. No ritual works if it is performed in private, thus this verbal offering.
Let these words make a safe, glad refrain. The departed respond to chanting and move with an alacrity never seen in their lives, even before their walking sticks. Repeat. Recapitulate.
Thunder in the morning means the Elysian Fields have been struck by a shaft of sunlight through a crack in the earth’s core in a stony wilderness.
Float in the flow of time so that the living and the dead can stop finally pushing against the current. Shuffle out of self. I accept what I have done and left undone and what has been done on my behalf. Forgive me my trespasses.
Once somebody told me, “He is dead, so I trust him.”
This Ghost Moon shines on the orange paint upon the statues on Market Street, its restless project of remembrance ongoing.
ROB MERRITT is a Professor of English at Bluefield College in Virginia and the author of the poetry collections View from Blue-Jade Mountain (2019), The Language of Longing, and Landscape Architects and the critical book Early Music and the Aesthetics of Ezra Pound. He has taught poetry in China and often writes under the influence of the Chinese “Rivers and Mountains” poets. A former vice-president of the National Association for Poetry Therapy, he works to share the healing power of expressive writing.
Photo: “Boston cemetery” by Dixie Lawrence