Thursday, September 01, 2011

What The Dead Bring

 The Dead 

           --Susan Mitchell

At night the dead come down to the river to drink.
They unburden themselves of their fears,
their worries for us. They take out the old photographs.
They pat the lines in our hands and tell our futures,
which are cracked and yellow.
Some dead find their way to our houses.
They go up to the attics.
They read the letters they sent us, insatiable
for signs of their love.
They tell each other stories.
They make so much noise
they wake us
as they did when we were children and they stayed up
drinking all night in the kitchen.

Susan Mitchell's poem The Dead was one of my favorites of the second week. It reads as part ghost story, part nostalgic poem. I think a number of things worked for this poem, most notably, the imagery and rhetoric of the piece as well as the inclusion of the ghost/death theme.  It keeps the poem fresh and able to call on the readers emotional responses without being flat, trite, or overly nostalgic. 

I liked it because it uses a combination of imagery and rhetoric to relate the narrative.  There is a sequence of events, but it isn't strictly narrative. The poem is evocative; it pulls on the reader emotionally and intellectually. The connections aren't readily made for you. The language paints the image and Mitchell relies on our natural tendency to create and forge associations between the images and meaning. Sometimes blurring the lines in between.

Mitchell misleads the reader in a way by ascribing attributes to "the dead" that they can't have, such as worry, or burdens, or even the act of drinking. She makes them ghosts, parents, lovers, fortunetellers, but though our emotions, though the mismatch of the dead with things that only the living can feel and do, she makes them us, the readers - the people left behind by the dead. By the end of the poem you realize that it's you drinking and remembering, you seeking out the word crisscross of folds in an old love letter, and you, keeping your kids up, passing on the memories and heartache that will belong to them next.  It gives the poem a level of folk-tale and evokes the tradition of oral storytelling, which is what I think works best for this poem.

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