American Life in Poetry: Column 262


When we hear news of a flood, that news is mostly about the living, about the survivors. But at the edges of floods are the dead, too. Here Michael Chitwood, of North Carolina, looks at what’s floating out there on the margins.

The Coffins

Two days into the flood
they appear, moored against
a roof eave or bobbing caught
in the crowns of drowned trees.
Like fancy life boats
from an adventurer’s flag ship,
brass plating and grips,
walnut sheen, scroll work,
they slip through the understory
on this brief, bad river.
What have they discovered
and come back to account?
Or is this the beginning
of the marvelous voyage
and they plan never to return?

We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2000 by Michael Chitwood, whose most recent book of poems is Spill, Tupelo Press, 2007. Poem reprinted from Tar River Poetry, Vol. 48, no. 1, Fall, 2008, by permission of  Michael Chitwood and the publisher.
Introduction copyright © 2019 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.