Source: 99 Poems(Graywolf Press, 2016)
The dead say little in their letters
they haven’t said before.
We find no secrets, and yet
how different every sentence sounds
heard across the years.
My father breaks my heart
simply by being so young and handsome.
He’s half my age, with jet-black hair.
Look at him in his navy uniform
grinning beside his dive-bomber.
Come back, Dad! I want to shout.
He says he misses all of us
(though I haven’t yet been born).
He writes from places I never knew he saw,
and everyone he mentions now is dead.
There is a large, long photograph
curled like a diploma—a banquet sixty years ago.
My parents sit uncomfortably
among tables of dark-suited strangers.
The mildewed paper reeks of regret.
I wonder what song the band was playing,
just out of frame, as the photographer
arranged your smiles. A waltz? A foxtrot?
Get out there on the floor and dance!
You don’t have forever.
What does it cost to send a postcard
to the underworld? I’ll buy
a penny stamp from World War II
and mail it downtown at the old post office
just as the courthouse clock strikes twelve.
Surely the ghost of some postal worker
still makes his nightly rounds, his routine
too tedious for him to notice when it ended.
He works so slowly he moves back in time
carrying our dead letters to their lost addresses.
It’s silly to get sentimental.
The dead have moved on. So should we.
But isn’t it equally simple-minded to miss
the special expertise of the departed
in clarifying our long-term plans?
They never let us forget that the line
between them and us is only temporary.
Get out there and dance! the letters shout
adding, Love always. Can’t wait to get home!
And soon we will be. See you there.
Dana Gioia, “Finding a Box of Family Letters” from 99 Poems. Copyright © 2016 by Dana Gioia. Reprinted by permission of Dana Gioia.