American Life in Poetry

Recently I said that I planned to publish two beautiful poems of grief and loss by David Baker, from his new and selected poems, Swift, published last year by W. W. Norton. This is the second of those poems. Baker teaches at Denison University in Ohio and is the poetry editor of Kenyon Review, one of our most distinguished literary journals.


Small flames afloat in blue duskfall, beneath trees

anonymous and hooded, the solemn trees—by ones

and twos and threes we go down to the water’s level edge

with our candles cupped and melted into little pie-tins

to set our newest loss free. Everyone is here.

Everyone is wholly quiet in the river’s hush and appropriate dark.

The tenuous fires slip from our palms and seem to settle

in the stilling water, but then float, ever so slowly,

in a loose string like a necklace’s pearls spilled,

down the river barely as wide as a dusty road.

No one is singing, and no one leaves—we stand back

beneath the grieving trees on both banks, bowed but watching,

as our tiny boats pass like a long history of moons

reflected, or like notes in an elder’s hymn, or like us,

death after death, around the far, awakening bend.