American Life in Poetry: Column 776

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

Last week 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.

Mercy

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.

We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2019 by David Baker, "Mercy," from Swift, (W. W. Norton, 2019). Poem reprinted by permission of David Baker and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2020 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.