Claire Millikin explores loss and the aftermath of loss in “Burying the Moon,” a beautiful poem that feels a little like magical realism, giving us an utterly vivid experience we can both identify with and experience as a rich mystery. The moon here illuminates a complex situation with many nuances and allows us to sit with these sisters as they work on their task and deal with their secrets. “Bury it, bury what you know,” the mother says, so we sense there is a family crisis, a loss. But more important than making the moon mean one thing, is to live into the mix of mystery and visceral experience—the moon feeling like the flesh of a whale or a dolphin, tender as milk, hard as stone, a shard of beautiful . . .
—Betsy Sholl Maine Arts Journal Poetry Editor
Burying the Moon
When it was over, when there was no way to save it,
we buried the moon with our own hands in the backyard.
The pieces of the moon felt like flesh,
flesh of a whale I thought
or dolphin, something of water.
But it was earth not ocean that drowned the moon.
Mother said it had to be done
to save father’s reputation. Bury what we know,
the touch of moon tender as milk, hard as stone.
I wanted to save some shard of beautiful
from my infancy of desolation
but the moon’s burial was absolute.
When it was over, the brick house sold
to strangers and our father’s name secure,
we buried the bruised moon ourselves,
mother and her daughters, kneeling
at night without moonlight, with only stars’
brittle fires to guide our hands and shovels.
The moon felt vivid to the touch
but she said It’s just a ghost,
only a trace of what you once wanted.
The moon had no face or voice.
Body wholly body we buried in the backyard
beneath rusted furniture of childhood,
chipped swing set, slide’s mottled verdigris,
trampoline under thick pine needles.
It wasn’t raining and wasn’t bright
but a between time, a time of giving up;
just survive, keep the money.
She said bury it, though it seems impossible this task
to bury the entire moon by ourselves,
Florence, Luly, Nathalie, & baby Claire.
We sensed the moon’s bulk even when not looking
and when we looked
the moon’s heft in pinewoods singed our mouths.
As we finished the quiet desecration
the neighbor drinking on her porch—
she who’d once been a ballerina—called out
It’s alright, you’ll be fine, to my sisters.
Understanding I’d never believe her
she said nothing to me.
Bearing the weight of near universe,
the moon fell beneath our backyard,
our bikes leaning against the house
where moss grew velvet and blue
in shadow of bricks, this soft eclipse.
Claire Millikin is the author of nine books of poetry. Millikin’s newest book, Elegiaca Americana, was published by Littoral Books this fall.
Image at top: Louise Nevelson, Moon Passage, lithograph, 1976 (photo: © 2022 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York).