Day of the Dead: the genesis of a poem

Okay, I’ll admit it. Sometimes I check my stats in WordPress to see how many people are visiting my blog and what they’re looking for. Lately, the number of visitors has risen dramatically, largely because of some posts I wrote awhile back while troubleshooting my DSL modem. Blogging lesson: if you want traffic, write about technology. But this blog was initially supposed to be about poetry and life. I can’t help it if sometimes technology takes over life! However, I was pleased to see someone recently was searching on an interpretation for my poem “Day of the Dead.” That caused me to reread the poem on Nov. 1, and though I don’t want to tell you how to interpret it — isn’t that as much the reader’s choice as the writer’s? — I would like to give a little background information.

Gravestones on the Artcroft propertyThat poem was written in Nov. 2005 on a beautiful, sunny fall day when I was walking around the property at Artcroft, a truly unique and magical artist retreat near Carlisle, Kentucky. I had the great pleasure to spend time on the farm of Robert and Maureen Barker at a time of year when no other artists were around. For much of the day, I had the place to myself and could walk the pastures, woods, and ponds looking for inspiration. One day, Maureen showed me an old cemetery on the property, and that became the genesis of the poem. There we found several gravestones scattered on the ground near what had been a field. They were either toppled by the forces of nature, by vandals, or by a farmer clearing the field and not paying attention to the old graveyard at its edge. The history of the site remains a mystery.

GravestoneAt the time, I had been thinking of my own father’s death a couple of years before in December. The poem “Requiem” had come to me a few days previously. The time of year and the time of my life seemed to coincide for contemplating mortality — a theme that I wanted to explore in the book Time Capsules, as I was realizing a seasonal cycle for the collection that was beginning to come together. The epitaph in the poem “Gone, but not forgotten,” came from one of the stones, though unfortunately not one that I captured in a picture. The irony of the statement was not lost on us, and yet as Maureen and I paid reverence to those whose stones had been scattered there, they were not forgotten entirely, though we did not know anything more than their names and dates.

Of course with the title, I was thinking of the the Mexican celebration on Nov. 1, as well as the more familiar version of All Saints Day, a day of remembrance. The belief that a veil is removed between two worlds at certain times is a common one. It may be the coming of winter that turns our thoughts towards death or it may be a reminder like visiting a graveyard. We may need these reminders, both to acknowledge those who have gone before us and to return to the everyday world with a renewed sense of vitality.

So I thank whoever searched for the meaning of this poem for giving me the reason to revisit it and remember where and why it came to me. And I thank Robert and Maureen for providing the experience and the time for reflection that allowed it to become a poem.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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