The Mission

By Kevin Young b. 1970 Kevin Young
Back there then I lived
         across the street from a home

for funerals—afternoons
         I’d look out the shades

& think of the graveyard
         behind Emily Dickinson’s house—

how death was no
         concept, but soul

after soul she watched pour
         into the cold

New England ground.
         Maybe it was the sun

of the Mission,
         maybe just being

more young, but it was less
         disquiet than comfort

days the street filled with cars
         for a wake—

children played tag
         out front, while the bodies

snuck in the back. The only hint
         of death those clusters

of cars, lights low
         as talk, idling dark

as the secondhand suits
         that fathers, or sons

now orphans, had rescued
         out of closets, praying

they still fit. Most did. Most
         laughed despite

themselves, shook
         hands & grew hungry

out of habit, evening
         coming on, again—

the home’s clock, broke
         like a bone, always

read three. Mornings or dead
         of night, I wondered

who slept there & wrote letters
         I later forgot

I sent my father, now find buoyed up
         among the untidy

tide of his belongings.
         He kept everything

but alive. I have come to know

not noun
         but verb, something

that, unlike living,
         by doing right

you do less of. The sun
         is too bright.

Your eyes
         adjust, become

like the night. Hands
         covering the face—

its numbers dark
         & unmoving, unlike

the cars that fill & start
         to edge out, quiet

cortège, crawling, half dim, till
         I could not see to see

Source: Poetry (October 2009).


This poem originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

October 2009
 Kevin  Young


Kevin Young was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. He studied under Seamus Heaney and Lucie Brock-Broido at Harvard University and, while a student there, became a member of the Dark Room Collective, a community of African American writers founded by Thomas Sayers Ellis and Sharan Strange. He was awarded a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and later earned an MFA from Brown University. Three of Kevin Young’s books form what . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Death

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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