Poem of the Week | August 24, 2020

This week’s Poem of the Week is Alex Chertok’s “To the man cutting the cemetery grass.”

Alex Chertok has poems published in The Kenyon Review Online, The Cincinnati Review, Third Coast, Copper Nickel, and Best New Poets 2016, among others, and an essay on his teaching inside a maximum-security prison published in Ploughshares. A runner-up in the North American Review’s 2019 James Hearst Poetry Prize, he currently teaches at Ithaca College and through the Cornell Prison Education Program.


To the man cutting the cemetery grass

I once pressed my face to the car window
and instead of mayday your hands were easy on the gears,

all zero-turn radius.
Every bump in the road was a body and yet

you smiled into the sun my younger self called soaking hot.
You slalomed through stones without grazing a psalm.

Were your shades so the dead couldn’t steal from you
what a camera’s flash once could? I called out

but you didn’t turn. Behind you, a woman kneeling over a grave
whispered with her hands clasped behind her head

to brace for the gunshot grievers feel breathing
down their necks. Somewhere else

a man must have been making promises
into the moon of his pregnant wife’s belly, then up

into the blemished, patient vice versa. Our songs were aimed
at a faraway gravity. The hearer could feel nothing,

no sun or joy or – listen, trembling and smush-nosed boy
soaked under his white-knuckled sky – or fear.


Author’s Note

Some of my fears I think will always run a fever – but so many of my poems, like this one, try to damp-cloth their hot foreheads, even if the coolness wears off after a while. The speaker in the poem above is upheld in the end by a kind of small-f faith that I’m trying to learn. Who knows if we’re ever heard? Are you out there? I say into my laptop screen at the readers I have faith are on the other side. Are you in there? I say into my wife’s belly, which is actually pregnant now, for real, the size of a grapefruit and growing, a true waxing moon – as if the poem itself reified this.