Nicholas Montemarano

Plague Song

We lost our balance, stumbled into walls
and each other. Those who rose fell again

and again. We climbed into bed, sipped meals
through straws. We slept so much our dreams

became our lives: locked doors led to more
locked doors, we were late for our own funerals.

When we woke, we couldn’t fall back asleep.
Nights grew so loud we wept and wept

in closets, into bottles. We forgot why
we were crying, who we were, where

we came from, the names of our beloveds.
Silent, we signed and pantomimed

our many questions. Dumb and cold and numb,
we felt no pain. Unaware, we broke bones.

Someone, without a twinge, dropped dead.
A single voice sang a song so lovely

we could barely bear it. Then we remembered
our names and where we were all going.

We drank the bottles of our tears, fell
to our knees, and for many years did not rise.



Plague Choreography

A fleet of skywriters spread the news
in smoke. Below, we wore black
masks and women veiled their heads.
All other news ceased and flags
were lowered to half-mast. Music died
into silence. The smoke dispersed
but the world had been seized: the worst
had happened.

Outside our mother’s house crowds grew.
On cue children blew bubbles and played
kazoos. After a Nerf gun salute, a day of silence
livestreamed. We cared that people cared
and were grateful that others told us
what to do and when: hug your father,
cry, don’t cry, don’t answer the phone,
sleep, wake, wash your face, your hair,
shine your shoes, await further instructions.

The next day our mother lay in state
at the front gate of her home, the coffin draped
with her favorite tablecloth and adorned
with mums and fruit. Neighbors assumed their places
around the casket, leaning on the handles
of shovels, brooms, and rakes our mother
had used to keep the yard just so. She had never left
the country, but people came from around the world
to queue through day and night, shuffling six feet
apart, heads bowed, toward the catafalque.

My sister and I waited for three loud spade strikes
on the ground before coming forward to stand vigil
beside the coffin. Another three strikes and we turned
to face the public, their hands folded before them. Here
we spent the night wearing neither hat nor gloves,
the air growing colder by the hour.

At dawn horses marched past in unison
at 75 steps per minute—so many horses,
black, brown, brown and white. Eight bearers
carried the coffin to the hearse, and their faces
betrayed no strain. My sister and I hadn’t had time
to rehearse the next part: we scattered the mums,
buried the fruit at the base of a maple tree,
then folded the tablecloth and presented it to our father,
a black mask over his face. We helped him
into the hearse, which carried us along country roads
past farmers pausing their work to kneel in hard soil.

We arrived at a vast field cleared just for our mother.
The bearers bore her weight over frost-covered grass
that crunched beneath our shoes. A perimeter of evergreens
watched. Then the horses came at 75 steps per minute. I broke
my mother’s broom atop the coffin and handed my sister a piece
and my father a piece to use as a cane, and a voice called out:
The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended.

Two more days of radio silence, two more days of no news,
two more days of flags at half-mast, two more days
of wearing black. Then the choreography ended—
or was replaced with the old one, or a new one: the world
returned to music and color, farmers mended their silos.
Our father took to bed, our mother’s tablecloth his blanket,
and my sister tended to him.

For me there was no music, no color, no news
worth knowing. Each day I dug up what we had buried
and broke my teeth on cold bitter fruit.



Nicholas Montemarano is the author of five books, most recently a memoir in verse, If There Are Any Heavens (Persea Books, 2022). His writing has appeared in Esquire, Tin House, The Southern Review, AGNI, and many other magazines. He is the recipient of an NEA fellowship and a Pushcart Prize. He teaches at Franklin & Marshall College, where he is the Alumni Professor of Creative Writing and Belles Lettres.