Love in a Coffin Shop


Mariann Johansen-Ellis

Richard Jones is the editor of Poetry East which, in special issues, has featured short essays about the composing process together with the poems. This summer, in a course he is teaching, he has assigned such essays to his students. A former student of his, and someone who has written “genesis” essays for Richard, I asked my former teacher to write some essays of his own. Here they are! The poems themselves will appear in Pilgrim on Earth, forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in Spring 2018.–Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor

Richard Jones

“Long Journey” and “The Coffin Shop”

Both of these poems prominently feature the child’s car seat, that inviolable throne into which mothers and fathers tenderly buckle their beloveds. Buckling in my children was, for me, one of the great joys of parenting—as well as a powerful stay against the fear that any of my children might ever come to harm. Buckling the children into their car seats and getting behind the wheel of our fortress-like, red Montana van, I not only felt sure I could safely drive the children to kindergarten and play dates, I hoped I could get them safely through life, with all its uncertainties and contingencies.

Of course not every drive was unruffled. Sometimes the children would bring up the very subject I was trying so desperately to avoid. In “Long Journey” it was the children who brought up, in cartoon-like fashion, the various ways one might die, a game they had devised to pass the time on a road trip. And once they had opened those floodgates, all my repressed fears came rushing forth from my mouth.

Back then on our countless daily excursions (this before my daughter was born), my two boys and I must have driven by the coffin shop a hundred times before finally stopping. I don’t recall my motive or what my thought process was all those years ago as I unbuckled the boys and took them inside the shop, but I do remember that when I told my wife that night about our little excursion, she was, as any sensible soul might guess, mortified. And more recently, the few times I’ve shared this poem, people look at me as if I’ve lost my mind. But my boys—now grown into strong and good young men—only laugh at the story and shake their heads at their old father. They have no memory of the coffin store or how I lifted them up in my arms to look and to tell them I loved them. 

Long Journey 

Because the journey would be long,
my son in his car seat by the window
made a list of the all the many ways
one might die. “You could be eaten

by a lion,” he said, “or your boat
sunk in the Atlantic by a German
torpedo.” “Could happen,” I said
to his eyes in the rear view mirror,

wishing I could turn the wheel and
stop time and death. But with my foot
on the gas and the long road before us,
I only added to the endless possibilities—

mercury poisoning, an ax to the skull,
a ravening eagle feasting on your liver,
a failing guardrail, an exploding plane,
not to mention a car careening over a cliff.

 

The Coffin Shop

            “and add some extra,
                    just for you.”
                        —Philip Larkin 

I asked my grown boys if they remembered
the coffin shop. I’d taken them there

when they were little. The storefront
was only blocks from our old house

and driving by one day I stopped.
I recall unbuckling the safety seats

and the quiet and polite way
the gray-suited owner with a carnation

in his lapel greeted us. I told him we
were only looking, as the boys and I

proceeded to stroll the aisles
as if shopping for bikes or ambling

through the stillness of a museum
to consider the timeless art.

But time had won: my children laughed.
They claimed no recollection of the day

or my voice whispering in their ears
how much I loved them

as I lifted my sons in my arms to look
deep into those boxes of shiny satin and velvet.

“Z” and “Promiscuity”

Love amazes me, the way it forever opens my eyes to the delights of this world. When I sit in my garden, I don’t know which I love more—the green of the mulberry tree, the green of the spruce, or the green of the willow. My sister once told me that in nature no green clashes with another. And it’s true: grass, hosta, pines, azalea, maples, and lilies all sway in the breeze in perfect harmony and accord. It is impossible to love just one green; in truth one loves them all. If one were to choose from all the alphabets in the world just one letter—the letter Z, let’s say—before long love would gather everything in its arms: zither, zinnias, the zest of a lemon, the signs of the zodiac, a goblet of zythum, zooks of surprise, zoos of imaginary animals, and a zillion other things, even the holy zero, the crown of thorns and sorrow that the Lord bore at Calvary so that our minds might know endless delight and joy. Thinking this way, I know I can never answer a simple question like “What is your favorite book?” or “What is your favorite meal?” All days whether bitter or sweet have been blessings to me. And yet there is, in spite of the heart’s desire to embrace all and everything, that one rarest of loves: fidelity to another, the beloved who stands high and alone in the wide heaven of the mind. 

The letter Z
is all I need.

From zero
to zenith

I find my Zen
and my Zion,

my zither
and my zinnias,

the zoot suit I’ll wear
when my life zigzags

from Zimbabwe
to Zurich. 

Promiscuity 

I can fall in love with almost any book,
whether it’s Le Rouge et le Noir, by Stendhal,
or Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes,
a book T.S. Eliot claimed only sensibilities
trained on poetry can wholly appreciate.
In Rome I walk into any restaurant
and feel at home, my eyes delighted
by whatever dish appears before me—
steak with fresh twigs of rosemary
and lathered in colonnata lard,
cut with a knife so sharp I want to steal it,
or branzino with lemon and herbs,
that delicious silver fish with its tiny bones,
the eye flirtatiously winking.
Some days when my wife is at work,
I open her closet, take the stops
from her perfume bottles, and inhale
each fragrance to loose memories
of lifting her hand to my lips
and kissing the pulsing wrist’s pale skin
before lifting her long black hair
to linger on the scent gracing her neck.
My heart entertains delicious thoughts
as I sit by the window in lace-filtered light,
reading first a poem by my sweetheart Emily,
then an intensely noble, heartrending passage
on what it means to be an artist and in love
from the notebooks of Rainer Maria Rilke.
Tell me, how on earth could I select just one
flower or gem or distant star to call my own?
How would it even be possible to proclaim
this day is better than the all the other days,
when even the years of suffering felt sweet?

Richard Jones at EIL

More Poems by Richard Jones

Richard Jones’s Website

Poetry East

Richard Jones at Copper Canyon Press