Poem for the Dead Man / Tristan Foster

Hot and long Sunday lost in summer. The sky is birdless. Unshaded surfaces are blistering. Smiles in this heat can be lethal. Evokes memories of childhood, of sprinklers on wet grass and the tinkling of empty cola cans urged on by a warm breeze. Of timeless summer church services and well dressed old ladies collapsing behind the pews in an inverse ecstasy. 

At home in front of the fan, everything else switched off. Television off, lights off, curtains drawn. Through the window, the muffled chatter of sports commentary on a neighbour’s radio – it will warp into thunder later this afternoon. A knock at the door and I know this knock. The rhythm, but also the hardness of the knuckles. Before I am aware of it, I say I’m coming and, nearly bone by bone, get up. Like I was expecting him. Maybe I am.

The dead man is here because he wants life through a poem. Wants a poem – is upset he hasn’t had one yet. Tells me this before he even steps inside. As in life, in death he sooks. Becomes five years old again. The eyes of a thief and the strut of the permanently heartbroken. Thin lips tighten. You were never spoilt, dead man, why do you act as if you were? As if you were your mother’s favourite son? Doted on by a wet-eyed grandmother? Smothered with kisses? Nobody doted. Nobody smothered. You pulled your father’s body from the harbour when you were a teenager – is this why?

Ah-ha. Now we are getting somewhere. You want you want you want. You don’t want to be forgotten. You appear uninvited. You are afraid that if you sit in silence you will fade from our thoughts. Nobody built a pyramid for you, or a sphinx or a Taj Mahal. You would be happy with a mere dome – yet, you got nothing. How easy it would be to mark your memory! Our ancestors made primitive sculptures of diving birds 30,000 years ago, how easy it would be to make something. Anything. You want to be pulled from the harbour too.

I ask him in. The dead man sits in the dark with me, in front of the whirring fan. We watch the lazy play of light and shadow on the wall. To break up the silence, I ask him if he wants a drink. A tea or a coffee. I say coffee but I don’t have any. Anyway, he doesn’t respond. One day when I was young, the dead man took me with him to visit a friend who lived on the outskirts of the city. We sat in the back; a black dog stood in silence behind a screen door, watching. The smell of eel soup wafted in from the kitchen where a woman was cooking. The dead man’s friend asked if I wanted a drink – lemonade, cola, water. I said no. Later, his friend asked again – I said no. The dead man looked at me. When his friend left the room, the dead man told me to accept the offer of a drink. It was good manners to accept.

The dead man must witness the big bang and the universe open like a gash upon the nothing. He must watch the eons pass and the lights fade and the great, slow collapse. He is a god without the power of one. He must witness war and famine and planets form then erode to dust. If he could pull a star apart, if he could toy with the cosmic, all his worries would disappear.  

Dead Man’s Poem

The dead man 
Wants poems 
Written in 
His Name
And, so.

In the 
Years before
He died,
The dead man
Took early
Morning walks 
By the 
Seaside. Alone,
Slow, gut 
In knots.

One morning,
Kids with
Dirty faces
Start a 
Fire on 
The boardwalk
And set 
Off crackers
Under the
Aluminium sky.

One of 
The boys
Will go
Home soon
To draw
Moon craters,
Stars colliding
And an
astronaut’s footprint.
Maybe, too,
The end
Of our
Wide universe
In pencil.

Is this
Good enough,
Dead man?
Answer me,
I beg 
Of you.



Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney, Australia. His debut short story collection Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father was published from Transmission Press. He is co-editor-in-chief of 3:AM Magazine.

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