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Claudia Emerson

ANIMAL FUNERALS, 1964

That summer, we did not simply walk through
the valley of the shadow of death; we set up camp there,

orchestrating funerals for the anonymous,
found dead: a drowned mole—its small, naked palms

still pink—a crushed box turtle, green snake, even
a lowly toad. The last and most elaborate

of the burials was for a common jay,
identifiable but light and dry,

its eyes vacant orbits. We built a delicate
lichgate of willow fronds, supple, green—laced

through with chains of clover. Straggling congregation,
we recited what we could of the psalm

about green pastures as we lowered the shoebox
and its wilted pall of dandelions into the shallow

grave one of us had dug with a serving spoon.
That afternoon, just before September and school,

when we would again become children, and blind
to all but the blackboard’s chalky lessons, the back

of someone’s head, and what was, for a while longer,
the rarer, human death—there, in the heat-shimmered

trees, in the matted grasses where we stood,
even in the slant of humid shade—

we heard wingbeat, slither, buzz, and birdsong—
a green racket rising to fall as though

in a joyous dirge that was real,
and not part of our many, necessary rehearsals.

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—from Tar River Poetry 46.1 (Fall 2006). Claudia Emerson's collection Late Wife won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She is the author of four other volumes of poetry, including Figure Studies and Secure the Shadow.