Robert Cording’s prose poem reminds me of my late Aunt Mary, who, at roughly the same age as the poem’s narrator, chose her gravesite for the sightlines it offered—in her case, a clear view of the horizon where the sun rises and where, she believed, Jesus would return on Resurrection Day. She visited regularly, each time noting details that delighted her senses and comforted her soul, in Cording’s words, “a kind of practice for [her] end.”
Cording somewhat casually describes this activity, using informal diction that belies the somberness of sitting at one’s gravesite, contemplating one’s death. But his use of just one word, “Constable,” deliberately and effectively evokes the artist’s moody watercolors of Stoke Pages Church that illustrate Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” a poem that differs in tone from Cording’s, though it describes similar landscapes and activity. “Graveyard Prayer” offers another take on visiting a cemetery (and revisiting a life), preferring to look at “what’s here” rather than focusing on “what’s to come.” And Cording, like Constable, gives us that view: the small dam and waterfowl, leaves turning color, old houses whose windows mirror the setting sun. “Graveyard Prayer” is itself “a kind of…gift,” “a kind of practice for [our] end.”
“Graveyard Prayer,” by Robert Cording
Lord, here I am again at the graveyard where I’ll be
buried, but for now where I rest before walking
back home. I like to lie with my back on the grass
and study the clouds, a Constable imposter,
or sit on my gravesite and look at this little village—
the cemetery, seven old houses facing south,
their western windows mirrors in the late light,
a small dam and waterfall that create a backyard lake,
that curves away to my right into the woods.
Yes, it’s all too easy, the day still to be enjoyed
as it won’t be when I’m steeping in my own juices.
It’s fall appropriately, summer’s green leaves following
their ordained paths to russet and gold. Lord, I don’t come
to reflect. Perhaps I should. Late sixties, and my life,
at least up to now, and since turning thirty, has been
on a lucky streak. I’d call it grace, especially the gift
of lasting love I’ve had, but that seems too presumptuous.
Forgive me, but sitting here is just another chance to look
at what I’ll be leaving behind. And if I’ve spent my life
trying to look at what I can’t see by looking at what I can,
I’ve never much focused on what’s to come, but only on
what’s here, a kind of daily gift and daily leave-taking
and, I hope, a kind of practice for my end.
Robert Cording is professor emeritus at College of the Holy Cross, where he was the Barrett Professor of Creative Writing. His collections of poems include Common Life, Walking with Ruskin, Only So Far(all from CavanKerry), and A Word in My Mouth: Selected Spiritual Poems (Wipf & Stock). He teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Seattle Pacific University.