Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Delight in the Dark: Prolegomena to a Ceremony for the Dead

An 11-part poem has recently been published in

Delight in the Dark:
Prolegomena to a Ceremony for the Dead

It is a poem in memory of my Aunt Marita. I wrote the poem back in 2018 to be read out loud at a small ceremony in her memory.

There are people in our lives – whether we know them for only a short time or for decades – that have a deep, profound effect on us, help us transform into the people we want to be. Aunt Marita had that effect on my life. She was a keen listener, but wouldn't hesitate to tell you what she thought (if you asked).  

Marita Mastrofski

Aunt Marita and Uncle Jack's house in West Des Moines, Iowa, was a refuge during troubling and chaotic episodes of my life, along with being a place of wonderful conversation (art and politics), food, and company during periods of relative stability.

Here’s a moment that appears briefly in the poem:

Many decades ago, I was driving across the country in a small VW bug, from California to Pennsylvania, back in the days when I was seemingly always in transit.

The car had no heat, was barely functional, and a major snowstorm followed me from Nevada to Nebraska. I could not stop because I didn’t have enough money for a motel and feared if I pulled off into a parking lot to sleep I’d freeze to death.

After the storm, I reached a point on the highway where I caught up with the plow trucks and, because I had no choice, I maneuvered around them and hit this embankment where the highway had not been plowed. I could see the endless plain ahead, covered in white. It was beautiful. It was terrifying.

The car was so light that I sailed on top of the snow, no other cars in sight. I had to rely on the red reflectors along the side of the road that stuck up through the snow to tell me where the edge of the highway was. Hours and hours later, near evening, I reached Omaha. I was on empty. I had no money left. Well, I had enough money for a phone call (remember pay phones?). I called Aunt Marita in Des Moines to tell her that I was almost out of gas and that I may not make it to her house that night. The phone call was simply my unconscious attempt to make some kind of human connection in a strange land.

I was tired, a little scared, and just needed to hear a reassuring voice. She talked to me for a little while, with both amusement (at my predicament) and concern. I told her that if I didn’t get to Des Moines in a couple hours, I was probably on the highway shoulder somewhere between Omaha and West Des Moines. She assured me that someone would come looking for me if I didn’t show in the specified time. 

After the call, I felt confident (beyond logic) that I could make it to Des Moines. To this day, I believe that the confidence from her reassurance was what got me there that night without running out of gas. Oh, yeah, sure, I hear you saying that back then a VW bug could get about a thousand miles to the gallon. But, my friends, it was on empty in Omaha…

140 miles on empty.

Everybody should have an Aunt Marita and Uncle Jack. I wish that for all. It can save lives.

Here are the first two sections of Delight in the Dark.

The rest can be found here.


Delight in the Dark:
Prolegomena to a Ceremony for the Dead


Today, your death day,
I stood between pear trees,

listened to white blossoms,
bees. Tonight, a hot wind

scrapes the screen: white
petals shoot by, rattle

against the wall like teeth.
The bees sleep: one eye,

one wing, one antenna,
one mind, conjuring

tomorrow's path between
petal, sun, and the dead

who endlessly weave
shadows across stone

and grass. Shifting
patterns across sand.

Everything is alive, alive!
Both dream and reality.


We crossed a continent
of lone porch lights

to sit at your table, talk
to you and Jack deep

into the night: Bosch,
nuclear waste trucked

to Yucca mountain,
stagnating wages, Chagall,

union organization, rage
at the wars. A safe base

in the dark, the only place
I ever called home.

Sold now. Maybe razed.
October moths

at the screen, frantic
to merge with porch light,

shining on the last cricket's
song in dry grass…

The rest of the poem can be found here.

Marita Mastrofski (1924-2016)

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