at an exhibition of Victorian
photographs of the dead
Posed and dressed in Sunday best,
their heads clamped tight in a metal vice,
their bodies propped on stands or chairs,
they stare at us across the years
and fix us with their unreal eyes,
inviting us to think them still alive.
We stare back, return the stony glare
of pallid boys in suits and ties
and girls in confirmation gowns,
the startled gaze of babies cradled
in a sibling’s arms or haunted looks
of bloodless tots arranged on parents’ laps,
each surrounded by a stern-faced family
and favourite toys, pet dogs or cats.
The relatives look stiff as those they mourn,
as if they’ve long become inured to death,
their children falling prey to cholera or croup.
Yet closer scrutiny reveals a different truth.
The living are struggling, striving
to maintain a dignified stance. Their fragile
masks are merely surface. Underneath,
a father’s rage is caged inside his face,
a mother’s grief etched deep behind her eyes.
Death is the same whenever he comes.
The camera never lies.