This is a poem by my friend Aleda Shirley, who died this afternoon. It appeared in her third volume of verse, Dark Familiar, which was published in 2006. When this book came out, she was two years into her battle with cancer. She was funny and brave and loving and a very gifted writer. I'll miss her more than I can say.
The Customary Mysteries
When they transferred the site of Hades to the air
the Stoics brought the dead into closer proximity
with the living & so for a time the sky
was full of souls. Away from home I often wake
disoriented & febrile, but in the past year
when I've stayed somewhere high above the ground—
a hotel overlooking the gulf, a borrowed apartment
thirty stories over Chicago where at sunset
snow fell, flakes of flame into an inland sea—
woke with the sense of being in my own bed.
We're subjects of two worlds: the daylit one,
solid & consecutive, where we meet our friends,
our families, the charming stranger in line
at the post office, & the one at night where
the border between past & present blurs
& we've the chance of a connection, however fugitive,
with people who are faraway, the dead,
the gods. For the ancient Greeks the psyche
had no function except in its leaving of the body,
though sometimes it would blaze briefly
in the trance of fainting or when facing death.
From the hotel I watched a section of newspaper
blown from someone's balcony swoop & dip
& glide for several minutes above the beach,
the thermals made visible in a way they aren't
by birds, who can move themselves, or a kite,
for which I first mistook it, guided by a human hand.
I wanted to think of it as a soul ascending,
perhaps that of my friend who died suddenly at forty,
some refractory & lissome residue of who he was
lingering on, but the sky was littered with planes
pulling banners advertising happy hours & water parks,
with satellites & space debris & ovals of ozone:
there's no longer enough room. And the world,
fulgent & resolute, clicks on, its vision the same
as a casino's: to keep the wheels turning.