Miner's Cemetery: Atacama Desert, Chile



Whatever is put in Atacama
stays in Atacama —
a wreath of roses,
every petal intact
in perfect desiccation;
miners’ pine markers
untouched by rot or termite,
the wooden chapel’s planks
striated fossils,
unrusted nails a century old,
copper and tin communion cups
all but untarnished,
the last wine’s dregs
a crystal ring.

The graves are shallow,
the fence a mere
formality,
for no one comes here —
the miners’ mummies
will be miners’ mummies
till the sun grows cold.

One thousand miles
of desert coast
surround this graveyard,
the vast Pacific
begrudging one drop
of rainfall,

the only damp
at the cliff-edge
and off-shore islands,
the unceasing splatter
of guano,
gulls’ gift,
millennial deposits
a hundred yards thick,
the Andes’ answer
to Dover,

mined by coolies
for explosive nitrates,
then, as luck would have it,
the miners of Bolivia,
Peru and Chile followed
to dig the hard ground
of the desert flats
for the mountains’ run-off —
more nitrates, the Titan’s ichor,
without which guns
would be mere toys —
nitrates to fertilize
the sugar-beet fields
of pastry-mad Europe —

miners worked dead
in a place
where even their sweat
was stolen.

Rain comes, on average,
just once in forty years.
If you blink,
you miss it.
To the dead
it has the faintest sound,
like the turning of one page.

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