Poem of the Week | September 21, 2020

This week’s Poem of the Week is “Elegies for the Living and the Dead” by Heidi Seaborn!

Heidi Seaborn is Executive Editor of The Adroit Journal and author of the award-winning debut collection Give a Girl Chaos (C&R Press/Mastodon Books, 2019) and two chapbooks. Since Heidi returned to writing in 2016, she’s won or been shortlisted for over two dozen awards and her poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies such as American Poetry Journal, Frontier, Greensboro Review, The Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, Penn Review, The Slowdown and Tar River. She holds an MFA in Poetry from NYU. www.heidiseabornpoet.com


Elegies for the Living and the Dead

~ The living are habitations for the dead.
~ Sam Hamill

I unearthed his letters
too late. Buried
beneath decades,

A spawning salmon’s exultant leap
against the river’s crash
as he pulls the weight of winter
down mountain. His final thrust.

Under belly, constant stone
polished by the water’s rush
hard to mouth.

In the end, and this
is the end,
gills flutter like eye lids.
His body settles to silt

as mine rises
to capture his dying heat, words
birthed in this shallow.
I slice open my fallow womb. Life

reckoned from stone canyons,
river carving
fossiled earth.


After he died,
I climbed onto the roof
of my house, sky
coal black, stars gone
and saw him
steeped in river swirl,
the trout hooked
by his cast. He played
out the line, eased the rainbow surfacing
within his reach. He’s here, I swear, in the river
Then, he cut it loose.


Living, I know
the line’s arc and whip—
its empty transit—
spread my arms like a flag unfurling,
tattooed with destinations.

My face, a watercolor
map of the world.

I follow that map like a river.

Drive out and away,
night’s glitter as navigation.

ragged shores.


Author’s Note

While on the hunt for some other bit of nostalgia in a box in my basement, I came across a cache of letters and poems that the poet Sam Hamill that he had written to me when I was 18 after I had studied with him. Reading them, led me to his books. I spent the rest of that soggy Seattle day steeped in Hamill. It was April 14, 2018. The next morning, I learned he had died while I was immersed in his poetry and memory. The first movement in this poem came out of that and is for Sam. After I wrote it, I realized there was more. The second movement was written about the night after my father died in 2012, and a spiritual encounter I sensed with him.

As I felt my way through this poem—the journey of salmon dying as it spawns life, the fly fisherman cutting lose the trout—it became clear that this poem was about transference. Specifically, what the dead give to the living, and what we make of their gifts and our lives. I left the poem like that for a long time, not knowing how to end it and questioning if the two sections belonged together. When I returned to it, I saw where the poem wanted to go, that it needed a third movement. I struggled for a while until I discovered it, already made, scattered in my notebooks waiting to be scavenged and worked. That too seemed to be a beautiful haunting.