Secret of the Picpus Cemetery, Paris

Will Stone

Through a gap in the north wall
the tumbrels pass at night.
Lunges of torchlight trailing tar seize
the emerging forms of gatekeepers.
With invincible banality
the gardien checks his quota...

Wagons piled high with total innocents –
priests, noblemen, ill-starred peasants,
sixteen Carmelite nuns from Compiégne
who, holding hands advanced on the scaffold
singing hymns.

All rounded up on the committee’s whim,
in a feast of bogus formality and derangement
of legalities delivered still-born.
Two days later hauled from a cage for grooming.
Against their napes they feel the cool preamble,
the jailer barber’s eager shears.

Now, two centuries on what remains lies here,
stacked in a lime-caked fosse,
wedged between the endlessly evolving
hospital buildings and elementary school,
whose pupil’s playtime din draws
its strange undertow over the grave,
harrowing the vacancy, or sowing new life
to tumble more beautifully into the abyss.

In the north wall the old lintel remains
and nearby a lone fang of palisade.
But the modern buildings sulk and bear down
as if to marginalise the charnel pit,
stifle the soul scraps penned in there
with the mercy pillow of concrete.

Yet the commemorative plaque endures
beneath the grey plumage of rain
and a few nuns still float gradually down,
dark leaves on a runnel between the planes.
Near mossy sepulchres you hear
the air’s exhaustive account,
the slap of pouches on outstretched claws,
curses of the ever-thirsty amidst
the cheerful clinking of spades.


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