What the Dead Know

By Robert Polito b. 1951 Robert Polito

                             Air here is like the water
Of an aquarium that’s been lived in for a while—clear and still
                             Beyond the rigors
Of glass; appearing cold (and clear) as spring streams
                             Fed by snow and ice,
But unexpectedly warm to feel, and inviting; side-lit—
                             A vitality of shadows
Once you come into it, and long bars of light
                             Burning like spots,
Remarkable for the absence of dust in their sharp crossfires;
                             Heavy, as crystal
Is heavy, as if to move here would mean pushing against a force
                             Palpable, and strong;
Yet rich with prospects of life, comfortable
                             With the idea of life,
As if, put on its slide, every drop is stocked with wonders,
                             Swarming, about to burst—

                             Beautiful in a way,
One element sustaining another, our message brought home
                             So that the living
Might come to see. Harder to say that without them
                             We are nothing—
Water without air; or to speak of our isolation,
                             Or our special loneliness;
Or say as they look right through us, at their plants,
                             Pictures, books,
Windows, reflections, and blank white walls,
                             That we need them,
To orient ourselves and to tell us who we are;
                             Or that with each look
They are swimming to within our sights; or that we are always casting
                             Wider and wider
And that even now they are fighting to avoid our nets.

Robert Polito, "What the Dead Know" from Doubles. Copyright © 1995 by Robert Polito.  Reprinted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.

Source: Doubles (The University of Chicago Press, 1995)

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Poet Robert Polito b. 1951

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Subjects Living, Death, Sorrow & Grieving, Time & Brevity, The Spiritual, Ghosts & the Supernatural

 Robert  Polito


Poet and scholar Robert Polito was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He earned his PhD from Harvard and has served as director of Creative Writing at The New School for two decades. Polito served as president of the Poetry Foundation from July 2013 through June 2015.

Polito’s collections of poetry include Hollywood & God (2009) and Doubles (1995). His poetry blends narrative and lyric impulses, drawing on both American pop culture . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Death, Sorrow & Grieving, Time & Brevity, The Spiritual, Ghosts & the Supernatural

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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