Portland, West End

by Sam Bett

Until a month ago, the Western Cemetery near my apartment in Portland, Maine, was not a place you would expect to overhear local gossip or watch unleashed dogs hurl themselves at one another. Downhill from Maine Medical Center and the stately houses of the Western Promenade, the cemetery views the harbor through a screen of pines. Some of the oldest gravestones are intact, but many are chipped or split in half; others lie face up in the grass. Large stretches of the grounds are unmarked by memorials, one area so vast it’s possible to forget where you are.

I used to pass through in the morning on my way back from the coffee shop, which, most days, was my only dose of human interaction until after work. These days, I visit on the walks I take with choppy frequency for exercise and sanity, but unless I arrive before dawn or after dark, somebody is always visible or within earshot. The neighborhood has spilled into the cemetery, as if collectively embracing the euphemism “resting place.” The stigma of death has been lifted from the graveyard; an odd exception, now that death hangs over every social gesture of our lives.

In early April, at a virtual event hosted by Copper Canyon Press, John Freeman read from his new poetry collection The Park, a spirited meditation on the joys and failings of our curated environments. He noted that birds had been cruising by the windows of his Manhattan apartment with alarming ease, “like the birds have taken the city back”—a wakeup call, in Freeman’s words, to how oblivious we’ve been to “living on their planet.”

Life, creeping from the refuse of last year’s warm months, offers an inexorable distraction from the rising death counts and celebrity obituaries. I have found myself transfixed by any living thing I see. Puttering squirrels, seagulls honking from the next-door chimney, cats in windows, the stink bug in my living room. It’s hard to look away from life, when a cocktail of instinct, uncertainty, and terror says it may not be there when I look again.

The other morning in the graveyard, I saw a turkey the size of a buzzard. A father and his kids appeared, maybe a hundred feet away, somehow too close to feel socially distant. Compulsively, I yelled: “Check out the turkey!” The kids saw it first and sent it flapping up into a tree. I forgot turkeys could fly until I saw it happen.

Published on April 23, 2020