Last night I was sitting in the back row of the reunion of the dead
who hang on our family trees as blanks, a generation or two ago—close enough
that we know someone alive must remember them—
but they never got into the pictures or stories, paving the road
we all walk someday. The empty space of Anna Estelle, or maybe it’s Anna M,
sometimes listed as Frances. Maybe it’s two people. Maybe they’re both wrong,
the way I’m wrong, finding two Patricia Gormans, same age, sixty miles from each other
in 1961, Portland and Salem. One is my birth mother, one isn’t,
so I’m left obsessing over this smudged name tag, missing number in a chronology, lost weekend, unsuccessful mutation, burning field, soul, the story someone won’t tell, or is unable to tell, around the corner with confetti and streamers, holding a balloon.
We mark by long strings of absence.
Sometimes, though, you find them, intentional or accidental reclamation project,
as one working on the drainage ditch from a burial site
who comes across the second burial mound, the one with the scroll.
You hold it. You dance with it. It’s a performance. Oh memory,
oh dear and delightful memory of sketches, snippets, scattered ideas.
Most countries have a tomb of the unknown soldier, a purposeful blank
made into sky. In the US, to the west of the World War I Unknown Soldier,
are the crypts of unknowns from World War II and Korea, plus one empty crypt
now honoring missing service members
from all conflicts. The empty crypt originally held the remains
of an unknown soldier from the Vietnam War, who also loved and hated,
identified in 1998 through DNA testing, as Michael Blassie,
who went to St. Louis University High School, found
with a dog tag chain fragment, signal marker pouch,
match holder, parachute survival guide, and ammunition pouch,
whose mother said, “We want the truth, we want to bring him home.”
John Gallaher’s newest collection of poetry is Brand New Spacesuit (BOA 2020). He co-edits The Laurel Review and lives in rural Missouri.