Report of the Death of an American Citizen

Report of the Death of an American Citizen
by John A. McDermott

It has rained every day for three weeks
and traffic splashes, wet whirrs, beyond
the window as I study this form, again
and again, looking for something like meter
or soul or beauty, again and again, and nothing.

(I’m not going to write about Sylvia.)
(I’m not going to write about Sylvia.)

Let us consider the other Americans who died
abroad, not the woman, whose occupation is listed
as Writer on the faded paper stamped on the top
in sans serif font DEPARTMENT OF STATE,
not the woman buried in Heptonstall, Yorkshire.

Remember the office manager, the salesman,
the high school biology teacher, the student
abroad for a semester. Where were they born,
only to die in England? Topeka or Spokane?
A suburb of Baltimore or turquoise Santa Fe?
                                   Let us not think about Boston,
or the kitchen of 23 Fitzroy Road, or her less-famous
name, two of the few handwritten words
on the otherwise typed form: Hughes, Sylvia.
(Another handwritten word in the top
right corner of the page: file.)

What does fame bring her? Strangers reading
this bureacratic assessment, strangers intruding
on clerical moments beyond her consciousness.

Informed by telegram:         Copy of this report sent to:

Traveling or residing abroad with relatives or friends,
as follows: 

The information and data concerning an inventory
of the effects, accounts, etc. have has been placed under
File 254 in the correspondence of this office.                                               

Here, inside, away from the rain:

          a PDF on the internet,
          a phrase as anti-lyric 

          as it would be foreign,
          to the deceased in 1963

tells me the disposition of her effects:
In custody of husband. 

What is this drive to find an ode? Casual voyeurism
or morbidity or strange affinity or curiosity or love
of language in odd places (in blackberry brambles,
in the cry of newborns)on forms filed in triplicate
on onionskin then scanned decades, yes, decades,
after death. 

It’s not like we didn’t know she was dead.

And here’s more proof: the Vice Consul knows
she’s gone. Mr. Carter signed it, on March 1.
Her passport (No. 1746223) is cancelled
and why should we care or feel sorrow, for her,
if not for the office manager and the salesman,
the biology teacher and the student,
as well, addresses and passport numbers
unknown but for their lack of eloquence
while breathing. Oh, breathing. It’s so much
more than words and it’s so much more than this. 

It’s more than Carbon Monoxide (domestic gas),
(it’s a gas, gas, gas, the Rolling Stones will sing
only a few years later, in English of a different sort
of bitter), or traffic accidents, appendicitis, which used
to kill so many and now is relatively benign, or lightning.

Why don’t we write about them?
We don’t even know their names. 

I wasn’t going to write about Sylvia,
(Mrs. Hughes, to you, stranger)
but none of these answers feel complete
and if I can’t find her here on the page
or deep in the dirt of Heptonstall, she still
feels here in a Texas she never considered,
resurrected in today’s rain, days and days of it,
cleansing and burdensome and necessary
and exhausting, something she might find
comforting, even worthy of praise, or rather,
still, harrowing and familiar. 


John A. McDermott is the author of the poetry collection, The Idea of God In Tennessee. His work has most recently appeared in Forklift, OhioThe Pinch, and Sport Literate. A native of Madison, Wisconsin, he now lives in Nacogdoches, Texas, where he coordinates the BFA program in creative writing at Stephen F. Austin State University.