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Dear Afterlife

i.m. Dennis O'Driscoll who died Christmas Eve 2012

Dennis, poet, man of letters,
I've unreasonable faith and hope
that you and I might still devise
between the lines
some ongoing intercom,
never mind that from now on
you'll persist in seeming
to sing dumb.

And so that's where I'm coming from
with this on-the-spot
account of your send-off—
some details you might wish to scan
for reference or even just for fun
assuming you can contrive to link
from that other side
to which you were so abruptly
snatched from Naas on Christmas Eve

around the very time that I
was following my wife
into a Kilkenny charity shop
where, while she felt her way
through racks of resale clothes,
I picked up for a song
three symphonies of Haydn
and a hardbound translation of
Rousseau's Confessions.

How strange—yet not strange at all
since life was in full swing—
that on that afternoon
while I played at being my own Santa Claus
in High Street, Kilkenny,
you were headed into mystery
of ultimate lift-off from
the general hospital of Nás na Rí,
leaving Julie beside herself
in untold shock and grief amid
tinsel, carols, Christmas trees,
that eve of the Nativity.

Remember then, after the feast,
on New Year's Eve
we walked you through the town,
a dozen or so poets to hand
forming an honour guard's embrace
both sides of the hearse,
under insinuating rain.

Back there in the church
we'd shared a deep communion
of love and loss (how good it was
to chant Kyrie Eleison). Whatever else,
we recognize the proper weight of death—
its drop to final deep beyond coastline
and continental shelf.

Standing there to speak for you,
Seamus, your friend,
the tousle-headed kerne, saoi
of Derry fields and byres and sheughs
as well as halls and towers of Academe.
Could he have had an inkling
of the shadow at his shoulder,
how, in mere months to come
he too would follow on the path
of no return?

See us shuffle on towards the graveyard
on that New Year's Eve. You may
have been surprised to note
(in cars, shop doorways or on footpaths)
how many men and women pause
to bless themselves as we pass by.
I salute their decency,
recalling words of Eudora Welty:
Every feeling waits upon its gesture.

A sign up front insists GET IN LANE
something you could have devised
to put the wind up in us
no matter how we try to veer today,
tomorrow or next year—

and you're still showing us the score
when towards the edge of town
the hearse driver signals a left turn
into St Corban's place of graves
where, to the side, another sign

At this point we of the honour guard
in moving on take a wrong turn
and briefly lose contact
with the whole cortège.
But see—there it is upon another path
and with as much aplomb
as can be faked the confused bards accelerate,
short-cut across the uncomplaining dead,
coming in first at the finish line of open grave
until you and the rest arrive.

Final rituals then are seen to and intoned,
we chant Salve Regina
and one way or another
you're home and dried.

I share this melancholy reportage with you
and with posterity
because at heart we're story tellers
to one another in this world, instinctively
including in our tellings those
who've gone beyond
the firelit circle of the living.

The gravediggers stand by,
waiting to close earth's open
mouth again and tidy up.
Theirs is a job that gets
into the pores, and to the core.
They'll spruce up later on,
head out on the town
to bid farewell to the old year
and see the new one in.

Nothing for it then but leave you there
and drift away, bypassing the signs
this darkening afternoon.

In Lawlors Hotel hot whiskeys
are the order of the day
and there before us is a cluster
of army officers in dress uniform,
their unbuckled swords ranked
by the wood fire; reflected flame
dancing on steel.

Has there been some kind of coup d'état
at the Curragh while we were off guard?

Nothing so dramatic, Dennis:
no sooner were you carried from the church
than an army wedding party
was warming up to enter. This is
the exquisite heart-rending liaison
and flame of life and love and death—

on this last dying day of the old year
bride and groom make of this inn
an everywhere of time and space
with fire and funeral.

And so we eat and drink and gossip on.
I raise a glass that is still warm,
propose a health embracing
both sides of the dark river—

be with us, poet, in our liaison—
Sláinte na mbeo is na marbh.

Michael Coady

Given Light
The Gallery Press

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