Dirge – John Francis Istel

Sounds sputter up the night before,
guttural, glottal, garbled omens:
newspaper rustles, booms, raccoons
clatter a storm of trash can lids.

In the gelatin morning before
vitamin pill-sized raindrops drum
the Clancy Funeral Home awning
moisture beads on the burnished coffin.

A noisy cemetery after all:
steam scours the air as heart-shaped shovels slice
the dirt, the clink and clang like boys jousting
with curtain rod swords, shiny hubcap shields.

Mourners’ tongues thick with the aftertaste of earth,
flat beer in the party tent. The rhythm?
The windshield wipers on the idling hearse,
swishing before after, before after,
before before, after ever after.


John Francis Istel has toured the USA acting in Taming of the Shrew, parked cars at a fancy restaurant, taught at NYU and CUNY, bartended in Times Square, worked as an arts editor, and written about theater for Atlantic, Elle, The Village Voice, and elsewhere. His poetry and fiction have appeared in New Letters, Weave, WordRiot, Helen, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, The Rappahannock Review, Marathon, Gyroscope, and Up the Staircase (Pushcart Prize nominee, 2015). He lives in Brooklyn, where he curates The Word Cabaret, teaches English on the Lower East Side at New Design HS, and roots for Arsenal.

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