I was a being of flesh and not of wood,
but that changed in a moment
when I Daphne fled from Apollo’s grasp.
I called to my father, the river god,
Help me, Father! Help me! No sooner
had the plea crossed my lips than
what had been foot became root
of laurel tree, fingers webbed into branches
leafing out to a startled Apollo.
When I Daphne, as fairest maiden, was lost
to him, the laurel became his own tree
whose leaves crowned athletes in games
dedicated to the amorous god whose sighs
and lamentations were hushed by the wind
that blew through the leaves of the laurel tree.
Judith Robbins’ latest collection of poems, To Bury or Burn, sweeps
across the spectrum of life, leaving in its wake moments of joy and
grief, childhood and motherhood, poets and their poems, and the
company and loss of cats, all of it against the backdrop of the
The book is available from Amazon
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from Barnes & Noble
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While reading in the Kalevala about the swan
of Tuonela, and Lemminkainen’s mother
and what she did, a shout went out from me
toward what or whom I cannot say.
Hacked into pieces by the son of Tuoni,
who threw the eight parts of Lemminkainen
into the river, here came his mother, carrying
a rake of iron forged by Ilmarainen. With it
she raked the reaches of Tuonela’s river until
she recovered all the fragments of her slain son.
Bones fitted, she chanted a magical song
for weaving of veins, for stitching of sinew
and flesh. Still no breath. She sent the prophetic
bee to gather salve from Jumala’s** pots. Rubbed
on his body, it would raise her son from dreams
of evil to life and speech. A mother defying
the story as told by someone else, she would
save her son from powers that bade him ill.
Her name Lempi, her action her identity as
Lemminkainen’s mother whose love prevailed.
* Finnish epic
Damien De Veuster, the leper priest
exiled himself on Molokai, the most
remote of Hawaiian Islands––
designated as quarantine––
to contain the contagion of leprosy,
its victims’ corpses left on the ground
to be consumed by dogs and pigs. Father
Damien reclaimed the land for burial,
to restore the dignity of those dead.
He and the colony built a church
to center community to replace hope-
lessness with joy in a sense of belonging.
He himself succumbed to the disease
and a century later was named a saint.
On his saint’s day, I bring him
the marginalized from mine and others’
families––the drunks, the junkies, the voiceless
ones, who carry a white and tattered banner
to announce they are coming, like Damien’s
congregants, their dignity restored
by recognition of their humanity,
by one man’s sacrifice of his life
that they might know the value of their own.
Outside these cemetery gates
guarded by angels of stone, unbaptized
infants were once buried, unable
to be interred in hallowed ground
because of original sin not washed away.
Not knowing what to do
that was merciful yet just, rule makers
wrote them into the margin of books
that held the question open––in limbo,
Latin for margin, which hardened
to doctrine of a secondary heaven
where needs were met for these innocent
babes, who because no one thought
to baptize–– even with spittle,
in an emergency––would be separated
from God for all eternity.
Lord, have mercy on all of us
who subscribed to such a belief about you
who from the first and to the last
is source of comfort for grieving parents
then and now, when the height, length, and
depth of your love is present as medicament
for this grievous wound, as you on your knees
dig with your hands in the earth you created
to hollow out a hole the size of love
to receive the body; then do you gather up
the perfect soul and return with it to home.
After all these years her reduction to ashes
sits unmolested on the fireplace mantle,
her mother afraid to let her go underground.
Her father had found her frozen in death
his and her mother’s love not enough
to save her from the cold and loneliness
of depression, that folded her in on herself.
If only she’d called, they’d have heard and come
running with hope for a new beginning.
I grope in the darkness
seeking the lineaments of your face.
My fingers made for handling matter
your divinity passes through untouched
except for my longing, which
registers, I trust, with you.