'Like dust their lives so small compared to ours'

entry picture

Roxane Beth Johnson’s elegy to her father is striking for the tender and intimate details that constitute the memory of him, especially his shirts, which become almost talismans for her to explore ideas of mortality and life: “first slick with water, last a bowl of ash.”  In the end, this beautiful sonnet, 'In His Lover’s House, A Father Rises', is an ode to persistent memory as an antidote to the existential void of death. 



by Roxane Beth Johnson


The end’s always there at the beginning

Dad said, quoting a prophet who knew then

what we’d come to — beings held in two hands

first slick with water, last a bowl of ash.

As a girl, I ironed his shirts, seams stained

from sweat, hot-washed in bleach turned yellow, and grass

scent of clean white rose under the iron’s

scald and steam I used to press his shirts out.

How fitting in the end a heap were found

in his lover’s house, the last I heard

of him who told me always that the grass

and ants were ancestors come back to see

if we’d crush them, then forget them again —

like dust their lives so small compared to ours.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by the Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2020 by Roxane Beth Johnson, 'In His Lover’s House, A Father Rises' from Harvard Review, 45, June 10, 2020. Poem reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2022 by the Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Kwame Dawes, is George W Holmes Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner at the University of Nebraska

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