At night, in the fish-light of the moon, the dead wear our white shirts
To stay warm, and litter the fields.
We pick them up in the mornings, dewy pieces of paper and scraps of cloth.
Like us, they refract themselves. Like us,
They keep on saying the same thing, trying to get it right.
Like us, the water unsettles their names.
Sometimes they lie like leaves in their little arks, and curl up at the edges.
Sometimes they come inside, wearing our shoes, and walk
From mirror to mirror.
Or lie in our beds with their gloves off
And touch our bodies. Or talk
In a corner. Or wait like envelopes on a desk.
They reach up from the ice plant.
They shuttle their messengers through the oat grass.
Their answers rise like rust on the stalks and the spidery leaves.
We rub them off our hands.
Each year the dead grow less dead, and nudge
Close to the surface of all things.
They start to remember the silence that brought them here.
They start to recount the gain in their soiled hands.
Their glasses let loose, and grain by grain return to the riverbank.
They point to their favorite words
Growing around them, revealed as themselves for the first time:
They stand close to the meanings and take them in.
They stand there, vague and without pain,
Under their fingernails an unreturnable dirt.
They stand there and it comes back,
The music of everything, syllable after syllable
Out of the burning chair, out of the beings of light.
It all comes back.
And what they repeat to themselves, and what they repeat to themselves,
Is the song that our fathers sing.
In steeps and sighs,
The ocean explains itself, backing and filling
What spaces it can’t avoid, spaces
In black shoes, their hands clasped, their eyes teared at the edges:
We watch from the high hillside,
The ocean swelling and flattening, the spaces
Filling and emptying, horizon blade
Flashing the early afternoon sun.
The dead are constant in
The white lips of the sea.
Over and over, through clenched teeth, they tell
Their story, the story each knows by heart:
Remember me, speak my name.
When the moon tugs at my sleeve,
When the body of water is raised and becomes the body of light,
Remember me, speak my name.
The dead are a cadmium blue.
We spread them with palette knives in broad blocks and planes.
We layer them stroke by stroke
In steps and ascending mass, in verticals raised from the earth.
We choose, and layer them in,
Blue and a blue and a breath,
Circle and smudge, cross-beak and buttonhook,
We layer them in. We squint hard and terrace them line by line.
And so we are come between, and cry out,
And stare up at the sky and its cloudy panes,
And finger the cypress twists.
The dead understand all this, and keep in touch,
Rustle of hand to hand in the lemon trees,
Flags, and the great sifts of anger
To powder and nothingness.
The dead are a cadmium blue, and they understand.
The dead are with us to stay.
Their shadows rock in the back yard, so pure, so black,
Between the oak tree and the porch.
Over our heads they’re huge in the night sky.
In the tall grass they turn with the zodiac.
Under our feet they’re white with the snows of a thousand years.
They carry their colored threads and baskets of silk
To mend our clothes, making us look right,
Altering, stitching, replacing a button, closing a tear.
They lie like tucks in our loose sleeves, they hold us together.
They blow the last leaves away.
They slide like an overflow into the river of heaven.
Everywhere they are flying.
The dead are a sleight and a fade
We fall for, like flowering plums, like white coins from the rain.
Their sighs are gaps in the wind.
The dead are waiting for us in our rooms,
Little globules of light
In one of the far corners, and close to the ceiling, hovering, thinking our thoughts.
Often they’ll reach a hand down,
Or offer a word, and ease us out of our bodies to join in theirs.
We look back at our other selves on the bed.
We look back and we don’t care and we go.
And thus we become what we’ve longed for,
past tense and otherwise,
A BB, a disc of light,
song without words.
And refer to ourselves
In the third person, seeing that other arm
Still raised from the bed, fingers like licks and flames in the boned air.
Only to hear that it’s not time.
Only to hear that we must re-enter and lie still, our arms at rest at our sides,
The voices rising around us like mist
And dew, it’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right …
The dead fall around us like rain.
They come down from the last clouds in the late light for the last time
And slip through the sod.
They lean uphill and face north.
They bend toward the sea, they break toward the setting sun.
We filigree and we baste.
But what do the dead care for the fringe of words,
Safe in their suits of milk?
What do they care for the honk and flash of a new style?
And who is to say if the inch of snow in our hearts
Is rectitude enough?
Spring picks the locks of the wind.
High in the night sky the mirror is hauled up and unsheeted.
In it we twist like stars.
Ahead of us, through the dark, the dead
Are beating their drums and stirring the yellow leaves.
We’re out here, our feet in the soil, our heads craned up at the sky,
The stars streaming and bursting behind the trees.
At dawn, as the clouds gather, we watch
The mountain glide from the east on the valley floor,
Coming together in starts and jumps.
Behind their curtain, the bears
Amble across the heavens, serene as black coffee …
Whose unction can intercede for the dead?
Whose tongue is toothless enough to speak their piece?
What we are given in dreams we write as blue paint,
Or messages to the clouds.
At evening we wait for the rain to fall and sky to clear.
Our words are words for the clay, uttered in undertones,
Our gestures salve for the wind.
We sit out on the earth and stretch our limbs,
Hoarding the little mounds of sorrow laid up in our hearts.
The New Yorker, December 19, 1977