Dead Man

By Kathleen Graber Kathleen Graber

Some are born to sweet delight.                  
 Some are born to endless night.
 —William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

We spend our lives trying to grasp the premise. William Blake is not, for instance,
William Blake, but rather a 19th century accountant from Cleveland on the
lam for murder & the theft of a horse. In the closing scene,
he is going to die, & so is Nobody, his half-Blackfoot, half-Blood guide.
Sure, this is a Western, a morality tale
                                                                     about a destiny made manifest
through the voice of a gun & a hero whose mythic flight from innocence
destroys him. But we all come to the end of the line soon enough.
The obvious just seems wiser
                                                     when Nobody says it. Time, it turns out,
is the most common noun in the English language, as if by constant invocation,
we could keep it at bay.
                                             Yesterday, I sat in another state on a large rubber ball
in my brother’s basement bouncing my newborn nephew in my arms.
His mother, on the phone with a friend, asks what we should fear more,
the hobo spider or the poison that kills it. I want to whisper into his ear
something that feels like knowledge:
                                                                   Once upon a time, there was nothing
& one day, there will be nothing again. This is the faraway place
to which his tiny weight calls me. If he could understand the words. I think,
he would know what I mean, having only just sprung himself
                                                                                                               from that fine sea.
Sometimes we coo to soothe him: Don’t cry, Little Bird. I know, I know.
But only the roar of the vacuum finally calms him,
                                                                                           for nothing sounds as much
like the lost world of the womb as the motors of our machines.
The root of travel means torture, having passed from Medieval Latin
into Old French. As the action opens, Johnny Depp, shot in black & white,
is already rocking into night on a train. And soon, he will begin his dying.
This is not to say that the inky band fanning across the morning blue
of a kestrel’s tail feathers
                                             has no meaning, or the first fingers of rust
coming into bloom on the green enameled chassis of a Corona typewriter
left in the rain.
                           Direct observation, the naturalist Niko Tinbergen assures us,
is the only real thing. Perhaps this is what I should tell him.
                                                                                                             Or that this moment,
too, is a part of some migration. Every snow bunting composes its own song,
& a careful watcher can tell one kittiwake from its neighbor by the little dots
on the tips of its wings.
                                          The most used verb is also the most humble—
merely to be.
                        Nobody can teach to William Blake the auguries of William Blake.
We are, instead, our own vatic visions, bumbling prophets. Our sense of ourselves
as invented as film.
                                   Later, in an ocean-going canoe lined with cedar boughs,
he will drift out into cold breakers, two bullets in his chest. But, here,
in his small hat & wire glasses, he still seems
                                                                                 sweetly comic. He holds up a letter;
someone’s promised him a job. His fancy plaid suit makes him look like a clown.

Kathleen Graber, “Dead Man” from The Eternal City. Copyright © 2010 by Kathleen Graber. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.

Source: The Eternal City (Princeton University Press, 2010)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Kathleen Graber

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Subjects Living, Time & Brevity, Arts & Sciences, Poetry & Poets, Photography & Film, Language & Linguistics, Social Commentaries, Popular Culture

Poetic Terms Free Verse


Poet Kathleen Graber grew up in Wildwood, New Jersey, the daughter of small business owners who ran an arcade on the Wildwood boardwalk. She earned a BA in philosophy at New York University, and in 1994, after years of teaching high school English, Graber was inspired while leading a class field trip to the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival to begin writing poems. She subsequently earned an MFA at New York University.
. . .

Continue reading this biography

Poems by Kathleen Graber

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Time & Brevity, Arts & Sciences, Poetry & Poets, Photography & Film, Language & Linguistics, Social Commentaries, Popular Culture

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.