Poem of the Week | June 04, 2012

This week we’re kicking off summer with a poem by Jesse Graves. Graves teaches writing and literature classes at East Tennessee State University, where he is Assistant Professor of English.  He completed a Ph.D. in English at the University of Tennessee, and an M. F. A. in creative writing from Cornell University.  His first poetry collection, Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine, was published by Texas Review Press in 2011, and won the 2011 Weatherford Award in Poetry from Berea College and the Appalachian Studies Association.  Other work appears in recent or forthcoming issues of Prairie Schooner, Georgia Review, Appalachian Heritage, and Connecticut Review.

Author’s Note:

“The Kingdom of the Dead” is one of a series of poems that are essentially elegies for my older, and only, brother, who died unexpectedly in 2009.  He was 14 when I was born, so I always knew him as more or less a grown-up, and in many ways, he was a model and mentor for me.  His early death brought so much grief, for my parents, for his wife and children, and also a sense of vacancy of how my own future might look.  All of this happened just a couple of months after I had moved to a new town, started a new job, and was already feeling a kind of general upheaval.

The experience left me searching for something solid, something with real significance, and the only thing that really spoke to me then was The Odyssey by Homer.  I had an audio book of Sir Ian McKellan reading The Odyssey, and since I was spending a lot of time driving to see my parents, I would listen to that in the car, then when I got home, I would read back through the passages I had heard.  Like most American kids, I had read a couple short excerpts of Homer in school, and maybe looked again in that direction in college, but The Odyssey had never seemed especially relevant to me.  It wasn’t personal for me until my brother died, and I could feel Odysseus’s grief at his lost companions.  “The Kingdom of the Dead” is the title of Book 11 of The Odyssey, and certain images from my poem originate in that haunting scene.

The Kingdom of the Dead


I have no crew nor fleet ship to carry me,
no ewe and sleek ram to offer for bloodfeast,
and do not seek counsel with kings and warriors,


only the humble dead, those well-known to me
and few others, who reach out in dreams,
who call back to me from wherever they dwell.


I would guide my uncle out of the shadows
to tell again of his pastoral boyhood,
running through fields of burley tobacco leaves.


My brother hangs back, still new to his ghost-life,
how to bring him forward, will he speak to me
about parting the veil between our worlds?


Not one ghost who greets Odysseus and drinks
from the blood of his flocks bears him happy news.
The lesson is long suffering, and why not?


As in life, so in the burdened House of Death,
even those who walked in glory suffer here.
I fear what I will see, yet still long to see.