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Poetry Moment: 'At the Plot of the Unknowns,' by Barbara Sabol

FILE - Barbara Sabol
Barbara Sabol

This is poetry moment on WPSU – a weekly program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Your host is poet and author Marjorie Maddox, a 2023 Monson Arts Fellow, author of 20 books, and professor of English and creative writing at the Lock Haven campus of Commonwealth University. 

Welcome to Poetry Moment.

Today is Memorial Day. For many, it is a time to honor those who died in military service, as well as a day to tend the graves of loved ones. Later this week, May 31st, 2024, also is the 135th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood, in which over 2000 individuals lost their lives. In today’s poem, “At the Plot of The Unknowns,” Barbara Sabol continues a family tradition.

Barbara Sabol was raised in the Allegheny steel country of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a place that has strongly influenced both her values and her writing. Her sixth collection, WATERMARK: Poems of the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889, was published by Alternating Currents Press in the fall of 2023. The associate editor of Sheila-Na-Gig online, Barbara’s honors include an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She conducts poetry workshops through Literary Cleveland and lives in Akron, Ohio.

“At the Plot of the Unknowns,” the opening poem of Watermark, sets the tone of the collection: remembering and honoring the dead. Through action and image, the poet bestows tenderness, respect, warmth, and light.

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Here’s Barbara Sabol’s “At the Plot of the Unknowns.”
The epigraph states, “One of every three bodies found after the Johnstown Flood of 1889 was never identified.”

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I belong to a family of grave tenders―we arrive with grass shears, watering cans, season upon season.

A seashell placed on a neighboring stone, small plastic farm animal on the next
say, you are not forgotten. 

After tamping the annuals, I kneel back, conjure my mother.
If there is an after, I hope she is pleased with these small gestures.

The day is radiant. Mica and quartz glisten monuments along the path
to the plot of the unknown drowned

whose identical marble stones rise from the ground in narrow rows
like sheaves of some strange crop.

Their blank faces marked only by weather. Names writ in water.

Dressmaker, scullery maid, drifter, carpenter, millwright, mother,
the children whose dreams scatter in the grass, you are not forgotten.

I lean my full weight on one stone, knowing in my own bones
there is a story here, and under the next and the next.

The earth is beginning to warm. An elusive wood thrush flutes.
Crocuses open to the light.

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First published in Still: The Journal, issue #42, Summer 2023

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That was “At the Plot of the Unknowns” by Barbara Sabol. Thanks for listening.

Listen for Poetry Moment with Marjorie Maddox Mondays during Morning Edition and All Things Considered on WPSU. You can more episodes at moment.

Our theme music is by Eric Ian Farmer.

Marjorie Maddox is the host of WPSU's Poetry Moment for the 2023-24 season. She has been a professor of English and creative writing since 1990 at the Lock Haven campus of Commonwealth University.