A Postmortem Guide & A Postmortem Guide (2)

A Postmortem Guide*

for my eulogist, in advance


Do not praise me for my exceptional serenity.

Can’t you see I’ve turned away

from the large excitements,

and have accepted all the troubles?


Go down to the old cemetery; you’ll see

there’s nothing definitive to be said.

The dead once were all kinds—

boundary breakers and scalawags,

martyrs of the flesh, and so many

dumb bunnies of duty, unbearably nice.


I’ve been a little of each.


And, please, resist the temptation

of speaking about virtue.

The seldom-tempted are too fond

of that word, the small-

spirited, the unburdened.

Know that I’ve admired in others

only the fraught straining

to be good.


Adam’s my man and Eve’s not to blame.

He bit in; it made no sense to stop.

Still, for accuracy’s sake you might say

I often stopped,

that I rarely went as far as I dreamed.


And since you know my hardships,

understand they’re mere bump and setback

against history’s horror.

Remind those seated, perhaps weeping,

how obscene it is

for some of us to complain.


Tell them that at the end I had no need

for God, who ’d become just a story

I once loved, one of many

with concealments and late-night rescues,

high sentence and pomp. The truth is


I learned to live without hope

as well as I could, almost happily,

in the despoiled and radiant now.


You who are one of them, say that I loved

my companions most of all.

In all sincerity, say that they provided

a better way to be alone.



A Postmortem Guide (2)

once again for my eulogist, in advance


You, too, are eighteen years older now,

and no doubt will say these roughly similar words

with a different sense of gravitas. I’ve changed,

but not as much as the world has.

I thought I had accepted all the troubles,

which is no longer true. And rage these days

has depleted that exceptional serenity

I once wanted you to claim I had.

Since you moved away we’ve hardly spoken,

and I ’d understand if you feel you’re now

the wrong man for the job. Back then

you were the only one who knew I had

an incurable disease. Well, no longer

can it be hidden. I stumble and fall,

shake and drool, but history’s daily horror

trumps any condition of mine. What is it

compared to genocides and demagoguery?

There will be fewer people at the service this time,

perhaps a few grandchildren, maybe even a few

others who’ve read a few of my poems.

Tell them it was true, I did think I ’d die at sixty,

in my prime, in love with mystery and its words,

someone who tried to listen to his inner voice.

What I wished for you to say was sincere. Then

I met a woman who chose to marry me, a man

unguaranteed, a selfish man who said he ’d give her

five years. Tell them it was she who bargained

for ten, then fifteen, and is holding out for more.

Tell them everyone needs a persuasive advocate

to forestall the oncoming desolations of the heart.

If there are tears then, trust that you have broken

through to where thoughts of me have let loose

in them thoughts of opportunities they’ve missed,

a splendor unlived. Steady your voice, and tell them

even if we’ve known despair it’s possible

with some luck and some love to wander

sometimes happily, in the despoiled and radiant now.

End that way, because the whole truth,

as I’ve tried to say before,

is nothing anyone has to know.





*Originally published in the Fall 1999 issue of The Georgia Review


Stephen Dunn is the author of numerous books of poetry and prose. His Degrees of Fidelity: Essays on Poetry and the Latitudes of the Personal,  is due out from Tiger Bark Press in October 2018, and a new collection of poems, Pagan Virtues, is scheduled to be published by W. W. Norton in 2019. He has been the recipient of many awards, including the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Different Hours, and he has had fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations. Dunn lives in Frostburg, Maryland, with his wife, the writer Barbara Hurd.