Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

"The Returning Dead"

To mark Memorial Day, Chapter 16 reprints Sewanee poet Wyatt Prunty’s memorable poem

Wyatt Prunty, a native of Humboldt, Tennessee, is the author of seven poetry collections, most recently The Lover’s Guide to Trapping. His honors include fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. Founding director of the hereSewanee Writers’ Conference, he teaches creative writing at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.

The Returning Dead

Each night I make a drink and wait for them
They have become the day’s concluding news,
Installments from a world without anthems
Or children, unfocusing eyes

A question that repeatedly rejects
My easy terms. They are ones who believed
And acted in the narrow and select
Ways handed them, while ordinary lives

Ran on without interruption
Or bad pictures, as though nothing had changed
Change is the one unanswerable question
Of these faces. The world can rearrange

Itself repeatedly, but these remain
The same, silent in everything they lack;
That’s what they’ve come to, in places with names
Like Afghanistan, Iraq,

And this is the way it happens: the words
Are old—mother, father, home—and will catch
Surrounding currents in the slow absurd
Descending will of any river etched

Out of a landscape history refines
To myth. The TV blanks between
Segments, but every static face defines
Itself, holds stubbornly its private scene…

Fixed, publicly, as we are led
Back to that little negative whose lack
Is each of us, staring the staring dead,
Leaning, sometimes like grief itself; then straightening back.