Imogen Forster

Damascus, August 2013

The dead lie in neat rows,
each wrapped in a shroud
bunched above the head
and tied with a thick cord.
Their faces are exposed,
cupped like old John Donne’s
in the engraving, his memento mori.

It’s easy to slide away
from the cold fact, to
mind-wander in sudden
recognition, seeing again
one of those dusty monuments
we saw in a cool cathedral.

But these are not transis,
sinewy, rib-caged versions
of their living selves, stacked
in elaborate cadaver-tombs
and pictured in guidebooks.

These are cadavers, all right,
but not yet decomposed,
and not desiccated into
clean, respectable stone.
It’s hot here, and they smell,
lying on the dirty floor,
this father, that mother,
these modestly dead children,
laid out like parcels in the
blood-flecked morgue.

Some of their faces are swollen,
gas-gagged, retched out,
and dazed men walk about them,
weeping, searching, mourning.

Is it so great a mistake
to reach for those
frightful reminders?
Shrouds are all one,
one then and one now,
one here and one there.

I was what you are,
I am what you will be.
These are our own,
our familial dead.

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