Flowers for the dead

Ask me why I write so many poems about the dead
And I tell you it is because there are so many of them.
Ask me why these poems must be written and I tell you
It is because other poems are wrong and must be corrected.

What is wrong about these other poems? you want to know.
I heard one say, “My friend, who is dead now, sat with me
All afternoon and there was nothing to say, and when I was leaving
He stopped to take a flower from his tree and gave it to me.”

I heard another say, “Don’t be sad—This is only as This is,
Things growing and things dying in their cycle, all
In their own time and in their own way dying. The dead
Are dead and gone. Life goes on. So, go.”

The purpose of a poem is to say what is—with the force
Of a hammer. When it comes down, this hammer, the poem
That comes with it, about that dead lover or that dead father,
Should strike you in the throat and make you speechless.

So, when someone has died, do not take flowers with you.
When it is your turn to write about the dead do not write
About flowers, or afternoons in the sun, or cycles, or God.
Tell it as it was. Get out your hammer and drive the nail in.

For example, the poem of a father says, “He preferred
Pain to morphine, hiding pills the doctor gave because pain
Told him he was still alive. He died in a hospital bed.
His cleaning woman was standing beside him.

Yes. That’s right. The cleaning woman. Fearing love more
Than death, Dad would not let the family know
He was human and in need of love. We read about it
In the classified columns of the daily newspaper.”

For example, the poem of a lover says, “I thought—
Who the fuck is this man with bones sticking up under
The skin of his back, who looks jagged and cold as a lizard?
When you said you were hungry and I made dinner,

I knew you were going to throw up, and you did
—In my lap. Thanks. Let’s make a deal. I forgive you
For looking at me with those weightless, jealous eyes, if
You forgive me for hoping you would die more quickly.”

When someone has died, do not take flowers with you.
Make poems in the teeth of your grinding jaw and bursting head.
The dead don’t need flowers or poems about flowers.
The dead leave pain behind them so we know we are still alive.

Originally published in Overland, Number 120, 1990 and then in Family Ties: Australian poems of the family, edited by Jennifer Strauss. Melbourne: Oxford, 1998