Late Song

Late evening, almost too dark to witness heaven’s exit plan:

oak & birch leaves letting go

                       into this season’s freefall,

branch to earth in the blink

of a dog’s eye, into

                  the remembered half

of the half-forgotten, for now—

how long will our names resound there?

My hope for the next life

is still in the remembered half, with these autumn leaves,

with today’s rain, with my hope to run again without pain—

though the number of steps

                         to my grandmother’s grave

has migrated to the forgotten side.

I speak two words of Frisian, her first language, my Beppe

maybe that’s why I love best those tongues sliding away

towards extinction.

Like my unborn child into her heartbeat.

Like cattail seeds into the wind,

                             parachutes electric

with life, galaxies of a single seed.

Do the food words of a language disappear

last, the rich ones, the ones we share with our hands?

Do the greetings go last, or the words for goodbye

that carry the implication of forever                                                                  

                          like an eel its current.

A spider diddley-bows eave to grassblade,

                                  what is the twilight

but a dying furnace that runs on promises.

What I’d give for a tightrope

                         to eternity.

Instead, an unspoken hallelujah in a dead tongue.

Instead, owl’s altarcall,

& swallows overhead, casting their feathers

as lots for our bones, goodbye, au revoir, ikosi.


Mark Wagenaar is the author of three award-winning poetry collections, including the Saltman Prize-winning “Southern Tongues Leave Us Shining,” just released from Red Hen Press. A two-time winner of the James Wright Poetry Prize and the Mary C. Mohr Poetry Prize, he is also a recent winner of the Mudfish Poetry Prize, the Pablo Neruda Prize, the Frontier Open Poetry Prize, the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Award, and the Jeff Marks Memorial Poetry Prize, and his fiction and poetry appear widely, including in the New Yorker, Tin House, the Southern Review, Gulf Coast, the Cincinnati Review, 32 Poems, and River Styx, among many others. He is an assistant professor at Valparaiso University, a father of two, and the husband of poet Chelsea Wagenaar.