Maureen Hynes is the author of “693 Cemetery Road,” a poem that appeared in The Puritan Issue 37, Spring 2017. As part of our Author Notes series, Hynes gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the making of.
With four friends in July 2016, I spent a wonderful weeklong self-guided writing workshop on the South Shore of Nova Scotia. Each day, before or after our writing, we walked a spectacularly long and wide beach below the cliff on which my friend’s house was located, with the ocean roaring or lapping or crashing, and the sun shining pretty much the whole week.
After the workshop, my partner joined me for a second week in a rented schoolhouse-turned-cottage on a nearby bay. The bedroom was in a loft, and the poem logs some of the details of our stay: I did keep banging my head on the low ceiling and my knees as I climbed up the steep stairs. And as the poem says, outside this house was a cemetery and beyond the cemetery, another beach and a wide bay. Mornings and evenings we walked around in the cemetery and through it to get to the ocean.
Each cemetery is such a liminal space. Of course, between those above and those below. The peaceful atmosphere enveloping the (often unstated, as in this poem) fear of death that we keep at bay; the curiosity a cemetery arouses; the futile efforts to hear the dead; the violence sometimes done to people in their lives, or to their bodies after they’ve died. Our avoidance of cemeteries: I am conscious of so rarely visiting my own parents’ graves in Toronto, and wonder if visiting them would make any kind of difference, to me, to them. Walking around in these often-lush properties, we’re also aware that the loss of most of the people buried caused heartbreak in those left behind. And I can never help wondering what the coffins and bodies look like now, under the weight of the earth, under the weight of my feet.
Especially in an old cemetery like the one in the poem, with headstones dating in the 1800s, some with names and dates covered with lichen or weathered away, I always notice how common the deaths of children were, and also the numbers of women who died young, in their 20s and 30s. For the women, I have to think in childbirth, but of course, that’s speculation.
In the schoolhouse we discovered a binder with local information, and some about the building itself–photos of it as a school, how long it was used. There was also mention of a somewhat recent civic enterprise the villagers took on, the one recounted in the poem—the cemetery had been overgrown with brambles for years, and villagers spent a weekend pulling all the headstones out of the ground, taking them over to a nearby barn, and scrubbing them clean. It took my breath away to learn, however, that the stones had not necessarily been replaced above the remains of the person named on the stone. As if in the hurly-burly of a battlefield? Tidiness gone amuck? Good citizenship but fatal disrespect?
But perhaps the buried have enjoyed the mixing and matching of their names and fates.
Some of the details in the poem (tying pillows over our brains, masking bruises with blueberry stains, using ten dollar bills for origami projects) could be seen as silliness that balances or lightens the seriousness of the poem (climate change and Trump’s nomination as presidential candidate sneak into the poem, as they did into our vacation). Perhaps these are moments of whimsy, or a touch of the surreal. But I think what balances the seriousness are the two moments of utter stillness—the one with the deer, the moment of gratitude at the end.
I think this kind of silly/serious balancing act might be a general strategy, not overtly conscious and not in every poem, but across my work in general, because I just can’t keep the politics of human pain and chaos and destruction out of my writing. Oh, and there really is no such address as “693 Cemetery Road”!