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Published: Wed Jul 1 2009
Wosene Worke Kosrof, The Inventor V (detail), 2022, acrylic on linen. Courtesy of Sullivan Goss Gallery, Santa Barbara, California
Letters from the Dead

I.  From My Mother

You who have read as I read when I was eight
that the sea will disgorge at the end of time
its centuries of dead, walk with me now,
listen with me as a blue rain ticks down
from your roof. This is not Armageddon, just another day
I am out of life, a spirit, today age eight
and this same sun freckling the autumn grass
drew me out, another morning, summer ending,
1915 and after, seventy-five years
into a world I never learned to love enough.

Today, hand in hand, we will walk back
until I am that little girl, flowers in hand
she presses into a book, A Child’s Garden of Verses,
cowslip, Queen Anne’s lace, Wild Clover,
a piece of that day breaking off in my son’s hand
today, June 9, 2007. Now I look down,
he is so small from here, my son at late middle-age.
I watch him press it to his nose, scentless,
his lips, to see him taste it, tasteless, kissing it.
And I would come back, not even when he cries
and the memory of me flickers while he tries, failing at this.

II.  From My Father

Morning begins: the world outside my window
waited for me while I slept: the blue so struck
with gold, as dawn arrives, it lifts me up.
I throw the covers back, already I am in the hour,
a boy come to Detroit from Flint to make his way
as my father never did or could. There never came a way.
Just work and work and then my wife, daughter, son,
a mother-in-law, sister-in-law, the cousins,
a house of others I had to feed and clothe.
But this morning I am seventeen, throwing off the dark
and no one in my father’s house is up to shake off my dream.
I’ll go out to the streetcar, then climb the office steps,
where I am youngest clerk, arriving early, leaving late,
a habit I will take on to become my life.
And the habit like the role of a priest at his last rite
will be the one I live by seventy years until the end.
And now in this place without night or morning,
light or dark, I am alone with it
in the absence of mourning, unemployed
or idle, all eternity a long hour I can’t think how to fill.

Peter Cooley is the author of nine books, most recently Night Bus to the Afterlife (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2014). Recently his poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New England ReviewThe Southern Review, AGNIPlume, and elsewhere. He is Senior Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Tulane University. (updated 4/2015)

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