Still Life, but One

My great grandfather had eight tall brothers
and when the oldest one died in the hayloft,
it occurred to one of my great uncles
that no one had a photograph of all nine.
They propped him against the flowered wall
in the parlor, stiff and dead as a doornail.
The daguerreotypist came, and, in its way,
the daguerreotype is credible: the lines,
though nineteenth-century, are still sharp,
and, clearly, two brothers cradle the elbows
of the dead man in the pocket of their palms.
The other six are grouped three to a side
(Symmetria in Vita, in Morte, our crest),
sixteen eyes open, two closed, mine staring
in disbelief at the unthwarted vigor
of each brother’s beard, at his ghost-white beard
and darkened nails, both of which had grown
since his wife came and groomed him for the grave,
and, recently, I’ve spent the moon wondering
about the man: why his face, wrenched tight
at the end, never relaxed, how his long form
leaned against the living seems a shadow
bar thrown against the light, how his stiffness
helps hold him. I imagine a suspicion
grew in their ranks that they had not stood death up,
and that someday only one would be left
here to hold this plate and look at eight men
unnerved by the flash in the powder pan,
but taken, one by one, with the notion of a lens
that shutters once and captures all it sees.
—Sidney Burris