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Prayer for the Dead by Stuart Kestenbaum

Posted on Jul 21, 2016 by

butterfly bush 2

Kestenbaum’s poem begins:

The light snow started late last night and continued

all night long while I slept and could hear it occasionally

enter my sleep, where I dreamed my brother

was alive again and possessing the beauty of youth, aware

that he would be leaving again shortly

I have had that dream—where I was with someone who is no longer here and inside the dream I knew that it wasn’t going to last. It was so lovely but at the same time the whole dream was shot through with this awareness—this is not going to last—this is temporary. . . .


It’s an awareness that could, it seems, begin to permeate every single thing I do—every time I load groceries into the car or feed the birds or listen to someone talking, their hands making shapes in the air—I could become aware of this same sense that was in the dream—aware that this will be ending shortly—me watching these hands make these shapes in the air . . .


Kestenbaum continues:

. . . and that is the lesson

of the snow falling and of the seeds of death that are in everything

that is born: we are here for a moment

of a story that is longer than all of us


Sometimes it seems like we know this in moments—the truth of it breaking through after we hear news of a death—

the seeds of death that are in everything

And I know this could be (and is often) considered morbid—but isn’t it just the way things are?—the deal—no more than 100 years for most of us—for many of us, less.

(interesting that the word morbid is defined this way: characterized by or appealing to an abnormal and unhealthy interest in disturbing and unpleasant subjects, especially death and disease: he had long held a morbid fascination with the horrors of contemporary warfare.)

I don’t find the poem morbid. I don’t find Kestenbaum’s awareness of the seeds of death unhealthy—actually, this awareness seems quite sane—it’s the way things are.

we are here for a moment of a story that is longer than all of us . . .


And he doesn’t stop here. He takes this yet further:

if you discover some old piece

of your own writing, or an old photograph,

you may not remember that it was you and even if it was once you,

it’s not you now

Not just that we will end—but the person who I once was has already ended.

This seems terribly and wonderfully sane to me.

Not just a prayer for the dead but for all of us.


And I find myself thinking of Mary Oliver’s question, from her poem, “The Summer Day”:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

It’s summer now. . . at least in this hemisphere . . .

What is it you plan to do with this 100 years? These 5000 or so weeks?

Beginning with this next week which will surely in some way shape the ones that come after . . .

And would it help first just to begin to write about it?

Full text of Prayer for the Dead can be found at Poetry Foundation.

Full text of The Summer Day can be found at Poetry 180.

Photo is from my garden.