“Missives” (And First Time Light Sculpture Film)


The first time I communicated with the dead
was through the “D” volume of
my Junior Britannica.
My letter was addressed
to my lost dog, though her name, which even today
is too embarrassing for me to repeat, began
with a C.

The next time was in the shadow
of my grandmother’s casket
as I watched my aunt rub out
the lipstick she felt
too bright
for the corpse
of someone so
“I’m sorry,” I thought to my
grandmother, “but you know
how she is.”

Since then, I haven’t lost count–
communications with the dead
are not something
one loses track of – I just can’t bear
to recite the coordinates – the place, the time, the
of sobs (interior
or wracking), the wait
for blessing.

My missive
is almost always the same – “I’m sorry” in all
its permutations – for your death, for
my life, for what I did–more often, for what
I didn’t do–

You’d think that I would learn by now.
You’d think that I’d be different,
but the dead, you see,
at least the ones I talk and write to,
are so forgiving–their stroking hush
holds me, allows me to go on
even as I am.


The above poem was written for dVerse Poets Pub’s Poetics Challenge on “First Times,” hosted by Fred Rutherford (of Poetical Psyche).  The video was made of a light sculpture by Jason Martin. 

Check out dVerse for lovely poetry, and, if you have time, check out my books!  Poetry, GOING ON SOMEWHERE, (by Karin Gustafson, illustrated by Diana Barco). 1 Mississippi -counting book for lovers of rivers, light and pachyderms, or Nose Dive, a very fun novel that is perfect for a pool or beachside escape.  Nose Dive is available on Kindle for just 99 cents!

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33 Comments on ““Missives” (And First Time Light Sculpture Film)”

  1. janehewey Says:

    their stroking hush holds me. i love this, Karin. Junior Britannica… brilliantly and quickly takes me straight to your early life. I love this poem and have a personal fondness for the subject matter. very well done.

  2. hedgewitch Says:

    ‘…My missive
    is almost always the same – “I’m sorry” in all
    its permutations –’

    I decided long ago(before I decided to be cremated) that my headstone should read “It was all my fault.”

    This is a much less pleasant sort of first time to remember, and of course, those are the ones you truly don’t forget. The second stanza rings so true–how we want control over the dead, and over the living, most when we know we’ll never have it–but as you conclude, the dead are infinitely easier to talk with, to receive our explanations which means so much, at least to us.Like all your poetry, k–honest and uncompromising without losing its softer edges.

  3. You know I just came from a funeral today and I heard that “I’m sorry” line~ Still, do we learn or do we keep on doing what we do ~

    I specially like your last stanza K ~ Its very meaningful ~

  4. Mary Says:

    Wow, I am so impressed with this write. I wrote about the first time I knew of death, but I have never communicated with the dead. I do see the dead as being forgiving. How can they not be? A truly meaty and meaningful write.

  5. rmp Says:

    hauntingly beautiful. “their stroking hush / holds me”

  6. brian miller Says:

    their strooking hush….wow…great close…what an intriguing write..first just the fascination of speaking to the dead…and i was thinking one way and you turned it a bit…the second with the lipstick struck me a bit…the reality of it maybe….really nice write k…

  7. Laurie Kolp Says:

    So true. We always seem to regret what we didn’t do, don’t we? I love the last stanza especially.

  8. This is one killer poem. You have just so totally nailed it. Your closing stanza is simply brilliant and the truest of truths. I believe the dead understand much more comprehensibly than they could have on earth – now, they understand Everything. And have nothing but compassion for those of us still struggling here. Great writing.

  9. hobgoblin2011 Says:

    This is fantastic. The style you approached the subject, and the prompt for that matter, is creative, intelligent and can I just say so darn cool. This has potential screen-story written all over it, loved it. Thanks for sharing this, a definite highlight for me.

  10. Ravenblack Says:

    I did wonder about why it is proper to respond with “I’m sorry” to learn of someone’s death. This is a thoughtful study on what surrounds that phrase. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece a few times.

  11. claudia Says:

    the lipstick part was what hit me most here..you made me ponder about life and death with this…deep write k

  12. kkkkaty Says:

    Straightforward and something we can all do is give flowers to the living….great work.

  13. David King Says:

    Like Claudia I found it was the lipstick that went home, but then I was constantly surprised throughout the poem. Nothing, when it came, was quite what I expected. Like life, I suppose – and death, no doubt.

  14. Some keen insights and observations here. Perhaps it says something about Anglo-American differences that our local urban 145 acre cementary is now a nature reserve where some families still come to speak to the dead. But I have never visited the graves of any of my relatives and my wife barely any of hers, nor can we remember any relatives doing the same in the past. Yet this Image of the regular vist to refresh flowers and let the catch up with news is still so present.

  15. This is awesome, k! So deceptively deep! It got a long, low wow out of me. Nice!

  16. It’s so good to not fear the dead. I for one, believe they don’t leave us and still hear what we say, know how we feel and want to help us if they can. I’m glad you feel this way.Lovely poem.

  17. Sabio Lantz Says:

    Wow, I hadn’t thought of talking to the dead in that way. But I do, of course — we all do, no?
    You said, “is almost always the same – “I’m sorry””
    My conversations (in my mind, of course) are usually thankful — not sorry or guilty — I am fortunate not to have that temperament.

  18. K this is so touching. Your last stanza washed me in calm.

  19. Gosh, this is thought provoking. I love the idea of the forgiving dead and the self-awareness of knowing they’re going to offer that comfort.

  20. poemsofhateandhope Says:

    Goddamn….this is so good. Death through the eyes of a child….not understanding maybe the adult complications put on it (the lipstick too bright for modesty)….but being able to talk to the dead….(something I do myself! I still talk to my dad)…there is something about the way you put this that is ‘forgiving’- and by that I mean….there is a freedom in death, and it educates us that our parents, our siblings, want us to live our own lives, to be our own people, and not to be shackled by guilt or grief…..maybe children see this better than we do. Maybe I’m rambling! But I found this very powerful Karin…excellent

  21. I find myself at a loss of what to add – this was real, affecting, and perfectly crafted.

  22. kelly Says:

    This is heart-wrenching, so true to life, so universal…. We wish we could learn, but life keeps some secrets from us, always. Great write!

  23. Sheila Says:

    This is a very powerful write!

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