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Lay for the Day
31st July

In the eastern Church, today is the feast day of Joseph of Arimathea, the wealthy man who requested the body of Jesus from the Roman authorities, providing a new-made tomb for the burial, and spices for embalming.
Joseph has a close connection with one of the great centres of Celtic Christianity in the British Isles, Glastonbury Abbey. (In the west his feast used to be celebrated on the same day as St Patrick's, 17th March.) According to Glastonbury legend, Joseph was Jesus's uncle, a merchant who brought his young nephew to Britain on one of his voyages.
The Messiah is said to have set up a shrine (to his mother!) on the site that was later occupied by the great abbey church of St Mary’s. This is the source for the famous lyric by William Blake known as ‘Jerusalem’.
Another part of the legend has Joseph returning to Glastonbury after the Crucifixion and bringing with him the relics which are called collectively the Holy Grail – the cup which Jesus shared with the disciples at the Last Supper and the spear which pierced his side on the cross.
Joseph is the patron saint of gravediggers, undertakers, cemetery keepers and all such as deal with the dead.


Nunhead


Black iron torches turned down on the pillars mean
“That which feeds me kills me”. Above, in a circle,
a snake holds its tail, grim sign of the eternal.
Soon they’ll lock the gates and loose the dogs from the lodge,
a cottage-mausoleum, but there’s fox-taint still
mingled with the warm humus of English jungle
and a feast of lairs where trees have toppled the tombs.

For a moment the wealthy may make us obey,
with their “final and funniest follies”, their pleas
for contemplation, in epitaphs as queasy
as this tilted obelisk to all five children
of Mr and Mrs Long, capsized off Worthing –
whose long bones lie with their little ones in the tower.

In waist-deep grass, past head-high brambles, we stumble
on them. The birch and wild roses strike up through their
shady precincts, where stems lap over Wife of the
and Fell Asleep, Asleep, Sleeping in Jesus turn
to touch drunken heads with Daughter of the Above.

A plot of Anzacs, clipped and swept, still hold their lines.
Upright, white as canvas, the largely empty stones
accommodate no cause, or birth, or loved ones’ thought;
only name and rank, and that date they had with death.

On the newest bed of chopped clods a naked sponge
the flowers have fallen off spells DAD and a pine peg
puts him late in the race, nearly fifty thousandth.

The letters are careful, addressed to an absence
whose edge has chipped few words from the composing hearts.

In an ash tree a thrush sings over and over.

John Gibbens
from Falling Down
 

The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar