“The Letters of the Dead”
We read the letters of the dead like helpless gods,
but gods, nonetheless, since we know the dates that follow.
We know which debts will never be repaid.
Which widows will remarry with the corpse still warm.
Poor dead, blindfolded dead,
gullible, fallible, pathetically prudent.
We see the faces people make behind their backs.
We catch the sound of wills being ripped to shreds.
The dead sit before us comically, as if on buttered bread,
or frantically pursue the hats blown from their heads.
Their bad taste, Napoleon, steam, electricity,
their fatal remedies for curable diseases,
their foolish apocalypse according to St. John,
their counterfeit heaven on earth according to Jean-Jacques…
We watch the pawns on their chessboards in silence,
even though we see them three squares later.
Everything the dead predicted has turned out completely different.
Or a little bit different – which is to say, completely different.
The most fervent of them gaze confidingly into our eyes:
their calculations tell them that they’ll find perfection there.
from Poems New & Collected: 1957-1997 (translated by Stanislaw Baranczak & Clare Cavanagh)