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No time to stop for death

That’s how people live in Poland now, but how do they die? In Arkansas people seem to die at home or in hospitals. In Poland they seem to die more publicly. One June day when Lynn and I were heading out to meet friends for dinner, the city bus pulled into the turn-around area across from our Soviet bloc housing unit; instead of coming to rest at the usual spot, the driver turned to the other side of the paved area. At first I thought perhaps the bus had mechanical problems—especially when I saw the driver calling on his phone. Then, however, I saw a woman slumped against the window near the front of the bus: she had died en route. I saw other people dying in their tracks. Only a few days earlier I had observed a man spread out on the sidewalk, blood trickling from the side of his mouth, being held by another man. A butcher stood in his doorway, observing. After I passed, I looked back and saw the comforting friend or stranger gently placing the man’s head back on the walkway. I assumed he had ended his struggle.

In March, for the sake of variety, I walked a different route back home from the Instytut Anglistikie—and I walked right upon a corpse. Next to it was an unattended ambulance. Beside it lay what appeared to be a large black leaf bag. A man was in it, but he was too long for the bag. His feet stuck out. I tried to turn this observation into a poem; here is part of that attempt:

On the pavement in front of kwiaciarnia and kiosk
next to an unattended ambulance
a man has been 
stuffed into a black plastic bag
no embroidered fantails
the world closed away.

His crossed feet protrude:
black shoes, heels unworn, shined
he had shaken off the dust.

Yet Poland is a good country to be dead in. The dead are assiduously looked after. The buses that stop at the cemetery gates always unload a host of visitors. If they have not brought flowers with them, the cemetery gates are lined with vendors selling blue, gold, pink and red flowers—all real, no plastic, please. A grave-width park bench is disposed at the foot of many graves so that visitors can sit for a while and chat. I thought I would give the practice a try. I spoke a few pleasantries to Franciszek Szyszkiewicz, who had died in 1922, but I did not have much to say, never having known him in life. Besides, we had a language incompatibility. I saw others deeply engaged in conversation with their dead friends. On the night of All Saints, the cemeteries are as busy as a downtown street, and every grave is lighted with numerous candles and oil lamps. A cemetery’s glow can be seen from miles away.