Elegy for Miss Calico: Remembering the Dead on All Saints Day
By Gerry Hendershot
All Saints Day will be marked in worship at many churches this Sunday, in remembrance of the "cloud of saints (Heb 12:1)" who surround us.
In the liturgy for the day at the Church of the Pilgrims, worshipers are invited to light a candle on the communion table in honor of someone who died in the past year--a loved one, a friend, or a public figure.
After lighting a candle, many worshipers say a few words about the deceased person's witness in the world. After remembering the saints, worshipers are invited to renew their baptismal vows, as a pledge to continue the work begun by those who have gone before.
In the poetic tradition, such public remembrance of people who have died is known as "elegy." Poet Mary Jo Bang is the author of a book titled "Elegy," and she reads the title poem of the book and talks about the elegy form in a CBS video you can view here.
One of my favorite elegies is by Frank Gallimore, who lives and works as a sign language interpreter in Seattle. His "Elegy for Miss Calico" is about a deaf sex worker whose dead body was found in a dumpster. You can hear him read it here. The text of the poem will scroll up the screen during the reading, and it is also reproduced below.
For more elegies, go to the Poetry Foundation's list of elegies here.
"Elegy for Miss Calico"
By Frank Gallimore
O the year before they hauled the deaf woman
from the trash. O the fishnets that crisscrossed
her legs, the florets in her straightened hair.
Asking how to pronounce Baby and How much,
she felt my throat for the trick of it. In a window
she made a primping Blanche DuBois over Felony Flats.
And Mondays with her stolen shopping cart she'd go
dumpster-jumping the lot between the fairgrounds
and the School for the Deaf. Who found the cart
up by the gabled houses and their turn-of-the-century
dream of baked Alaska, Amaryllis belladonna,
so many grandmas asleep in a goldenrod grave?
When they fished her out, the eastbound roared
through necklaces of skyline, or so I remember,
or so I say. By rust-ravaged fronts, I sensed
a hustler's craft, device of handshake and for-the-best,
while there lay syringes by which to tune his happiness.
I used to watch his girls cluster like flowers on a mock-
terrazzo ledge, pressed on a barred patio. I'd watch her coo,
make mouths of inscrutable lingo for the long lash of his body.
And O the too-short calico dress, hand-me-down,
arranging itself on the breeze of his battered porch.
How do you say my name? she'd ask at dusk,
smooth fingers again on my throat to feel the syllables rise.
By morning her smelllike a wrung rag's. Whore, I'd say,
the word puckering as she tossed her ratty head back
and laughed. We laughed. I wiped my cheek
with the back of my hand, the sign for her like rubbing a scar.
Frank Gallimore lives in Seattle, where he works as a sign-language interpreter. He is a 2007 graduate of the MFA program at Johns Hopkins University.