Leveler Poetry Journal
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You died in September I remember dirt on your father’s knees your father ordered all the leaves to fall I didn’t know the trees I couldn’t beside him think how to kneel without remembering August burning chlorine on your skin swimming blue sky you dove under me I floated down I wanted your mouth against mine in how many languages can I say forgive me I didn’t hold my breath

Sherry O'Keefe

levelheaded: Mike

By opening her poem with the words “You died,” Sherry O’Keefe establishes that this poem is about loss and its accompanying culpability. The titular Mike’s death is obviously on the speaker’s mind, but what’s more important is that she approaches his death with an almost accusative tone. The poem doesn’t open with “When you died” or “I remember when you died.” Instead, “You died,” is stated as flatly as fact, as if Mike himself could accept responsibility by saying, “Yes, I did do that.” It’s an ambitious start, taking on one of poetry’s “big” subjects directly, but the weight of those first words is diffused by internal rhyme and near rhyme throughout (“September” and “remember,” “knees” and “leaves” and “trees,” the appropriately paired “mouth” and “breath”).

From the initial “You died,” the speaker moves on to “your father” who “ordered all the leaves to fall.” The father’s orders, whether obeyed by the leaves or not, are his attempt to exert control over the cycles of life and death. This is made especially poignant because we imagine if the father did have any control, his son may not have died. His orders to the leaves are a rebellion against an unpredictable world, a powerless foil to his helplessness, and they are paralleled by the structure of the poem. What could have been a discursive, emotional monologue full of run-on sentences and without punctuation is given structure, essentially corralled into a poem. Finally, the speaker holds herself culpable saying, “in how many languages can / I say forgive me.” We can’t be sure how Mike died or why the speaker would ask forgiveness, but it seems clear that after subtly assigning the responsibility to others, she must accept some of it herself, and when she does, the poem is over.

– The Editors