by J. S. Absher

It’s no small thing to rescue 
the dead from oblivion—names
on an ostracon, a fragment of papyrus, 
or a chancery roll, letters carved on a cliff,
a one-line obit for a baby—died of a fever, 
gone to rest in Jesus. Her family 
has vanished, but He will remember 
and restore name to face, laughter to mouth, 
her tender care to her mother’s arms.

And if the dead are to be 
rescued to life, what of the living
who must quarantine—the fearful, 
the immobile and frail, sometimes 
forgotten as if dead; those locked
in their own heads, for whom it seems 
useless for Lazarus to dip his finger
into the water—their tongue cannot 
taste its coolness. Engrave their names

on your palm. The man you put up
in a cheap room before he disappeared: 
what more could you have done? 
The woman tattooed head to foot 
who felt rejected: what should you 
have said? The young man on the street, 
whom you passed by for being high, 
but who was shaking and blue with cold: 
inscribe him on the flesh of your heart.

J. S. Absher is a poet and independent scholar. His first full-length book of poetry, Mouth Work (St. Andrews University Press) won the 2015 Lena Shull Competition of the North Carolina Poetry Society. His second full-length collection, Skating Rough Ground, is scheduled to appear next year. Chapbooks are Night Weather (Cynosura, 2010) and The Burial of Anyce Shepherd (Main Street Rag, 2006). Absher is also preparing three books focusing on North Carolina and Southern US history, two of which (Love Letters of a Mississippi Lawyer and My Own Life, or A Deserted Wife) were published this year. He lives in Raleigh, NC, with his wife, Patti. Website: 

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