Repository logo

Musician (lost at sea)


In Musician (Lost at Sea), I am trying to understand poetry as a mode of caregiving and companionship for those crossing over from life to death. Inspired by the Ancient Greek role of the psychopomp – a mythic guide accompanying souls to the afterlife – my poems attempt both to show and to traverse the mysterious boundary between life and whatever might follow. In doing so, rather than considering death only as an occasion for grief or loss (yet no less removed from them), my poems allow death the potential to be warm, accompanied, and a space that could give way to new life. Almost all of my poems cannot help but establish themselves in the natural world: a place where death and life are so clear in their conjunction, the way a forest fire's ashes feed new plants, or the way a rabbit's body sustains an owl. Ultimately, these poems might make a seemingly impossible claim, as the Greek philosopher Thales first did, that life and death are strangely the same thing, and that to die might also be an opportunity for the soul, or other forms of life, to continue to live or grow. The speaker of many of these poems bears witness to the transitional space between life and death, observing those close to dying or already dead. From the collection's onset, the poems remain sensitive to this space's mystery, careful not to prescribe death with any one outcome, offering instead companionship and thought to the rich change occurring. In the opening poem/prelude, "Lost Graveyard in the Appalachians," the speaker walks among gravestones made illegible with age, lichen and moss growing over their names, before saying "this place / seems no longer / for my knowing." These lines, rather than simply dismissing a human way of knowing, open up both spiritual and natural possibilities for knowing the dead, which the collection will carry forward. "This place" might not be for "my knowing," but perhaps for the lichen's instead, or perhaps also for the psychopomp guiding those buried underground elsewhere ("each grave that vanishes / vanishes / as if opening / somewhere"). The collection creates space for the speaker, the reader, and even more deeply, each poem, to be just such a psychopomp: a figure that accompanies the dead on this journey elsewhere, and in doing so, gives care. Many of the poems adopt the second person "you," a pronoun that is both self-referential of the speaker and also inviting of the reader to take part in witnessing or walking with the dead. This "you" carries a strange intimacy, allowing empathy for an occasion that is universal and familiar (death) while also one that is completely unknowable to the living. The poems give the reader close access to this occasion and to the imaginative spaces beyond it, guiding them through various beings' deaths while maintaining the same careful and warm presence befitting a caregiver. Grief and loss are no less aspects of death here, as they always are, and yet they are understood more as parts of a larger journeying process, one that affects the dead just as much as the living who feel their absence. In the poem "Planting a Future Elegy in a Holloway," for example, the "you" allows both the speaker and reader to step into an imagined landscape and manner of grieving. The speaker finds themselves in a holloway, a woodland road caved in from its surrounding land, circular in shape, formed from erosion and centuries of travel. In planting a "future elegy," "you" have come to try to "orient a grief / you have not found / a language for / yet hold / and press / in older earth," the holloway providing an ancient space with which to shelter a poem that does not know its specific purpose yet, but does know that it will grieve. To plant a future elegy here, among "an exposure of roots, / moss, and quiet / mushrooms," a "rabbit's / bones," and "a worm / looping in and out / of loam" signals, like "Lost Graveyard in the Appalachians," a passing of understanding to the natural world, the land itself perhaps a more fitting agent for knowing and holding the dead. Further, by appearing at the collection's beginning, this poem suggests that the future elegy, perhaps a metaphor for understanding grief and death in general, bears out as the book progresses: an undeveloped seed that will take root in landscape, silence, and antiquity, as subsequent poems will reflect. In terms of subject matter, these poems, most of which adopt a narrative quality in describing a death or those already dead, range from the ancient to the contemporary. This variance accentuates the collection's larger motion – that of moving across narratives as a psychopomp moves alongside the dead – eventually transcending time and space despite frequently relying on Greek mythology. As the book moves, we move alongside figures like Baucis and Philemon, an elderly couple from Ovid's Metamorphoses who turn into trees; a singing fisherman who drowns at sea, two ants carrying the dead body of another ant, Orpheus's head floating down a river, patients at an Alzheimer's unit mourning their daughter, an astronomer buried on another planet, and still others. These deaths, despite being distinct, each demonstrate a continuation of a life in one way or another, the poems acting as psychopomps in carrying the souls they house elsewhere. What happens after death may still be unknowable, but the poems at least hold that death is more a transition than a fixed end point, even if that transition is a human decomposing underground while providing nutrients to grow a flower. A much smaller group of poems, placed throughout the collection, use the first person "I" to speak from the point of view of the dead. These persona poems, most of which are titled "Gravewhisper," allow the reader intimate, albeit imagined, access to voices beyond the grave. The language and syntax of these short poems (the word "whisper" capturing both their quietness and brevity), are purposefully unconventional, suggesting that speech and language, even though decipherable, function differently in the afterlife. These "Gravewhisper" poems each appear directly after more traditional narrative poems featuring a death (from which stems the "I's" identity), the proximity allowing for the living and the dead to be in conversation with one another, even though neither may know they are doing so from their vantage point. Two related poems, each titled "Whispergrave," further accentuate language that might befit the afterlife, each of them adjusted to the right margin rather than the left, formally reflecting a "Gravewhisper" on the opposite page. Together, these poems invite the reader into acts of deep listening, bringing them closer to wherever the dead may now reside, and attuning them to how a being might speak after they have died. Although different from the "Gravewhisper" poems, there is a similar strand of communication to be found in the realm of dreaming and in the unconscious mind throughout the manuscript. In the poems "Experiment in Dreaming" and "The Obsolescent Clocks," for example, the speaker (or a "you") enters dreams in which strangers, both realistic and fantastical, speak about death. In the first case, "you" dream of a fishing village, and meet a peddler selling clay vessels by the sea who mentions a drowned bird. In the second, "you" dream of an abandoned clock shop where clocks can speak, each broken and spinning according to its own, chaotic time, and labeled with the identity of someone who has died ("A grandfather clock is named / 'musician lost at sea' / while a watch, spinning violently / is 'a burned ash tree'"). Both poems suggest, by way of their playfulness in attempting dream-like thought patterns, that there is something about the unconscious mind that bring us closer to death (or to the dead), even while temporarily asleep. The space of a dream might then also be a realm in which the psychopomp can thrive, each dream perhaps a kind of spirit guide in itself, journeying us elsewhere, where language, image, and narrative operate on a level buried below our normal span of thinking. Finally, my collection's title, Musician (Lost at Sea), taken from the line referenced above in "The Obsolescent Clocks," acknowledges these layers of movement between life and death the psychopomp traverses. The title can read like an epitaph thanks to the parentheses, naming a musician and their cause of death, allowing us to conceive of the collection itself as a kind of grave marker for one who has passed into an afterlife. The word "musician," beyond denoting a musical occupation, perhaps more simply alerts us to a role being played, the poetic spirit behind the collection able to function as a musician telling a story (or many stories), adrift in uncharted waters of a kind (the idea of imagining an afterlife). Perhaps the psychopomp, at once book, speaker, and reader, is a kind of musician too (or muse), guiding us toward a poetic, and therefore musical, understanding of the dead, and what it might mean to accompany them elsewhere, a place that cannot help but be "lost" because of its intrinsic unknowability.


Rights Access

Embargo expires: 08/28/2025.



Associated Publications