You weren't well or really ill either;
just a little tired, your handsomeness
tinged by grief or anticipation, which brought
to your face a thoughtful, deepening grace.
I didn't for a moment doubt you were dead.
I knew that to be true still, even in the dream.
You'd been out--at work maybe?--
having a good day, almost energetic.
We seemed to be moving from some old house
where we'd lived, boxes everywhere, things
in disarray: that was the story of my dream,
but even asleep I was shocked out of narrative
by your face, the physical fact of your face:
inches from mine, smooth-shaven, loving, alert.
Why so difficult, remembering the actual
look of you? Without a photograph, without strain?
So when I saw your unguarded, reliable face,
your unmistakable gaze opening all the warmth
and clarity of you--warm brown tea--we held
each other for the time the deam allowed.
Bless you. You came back, so I could see you
once more, plainly, so I could rest against you
without thinking this happiness lessened anything,
without thinking you were alive again.
Mark Doty 1998
Mark Doty draws upon his partner's AIDS-related death to craft this poem about that lover's visitation in dream. Written four years after the loss, it explores the concept of memory. Dream animates memory, giving the speaker some assurance that he hasn't lost his partner. "Loss" is not physical death; rather, it is the forgetting of a physical presence, forgetting of a body in motion, seeing a life instead of a photo.
The poem opens with such familiarity that we are instantly aware of the pair's love. In the first line, "You weren't well or really ill yet either," the speaker places his partner's condition between ill and well. Picking up on the subtlety of the face, the narrator remarks that it's "tinged with grief or anticipation," again demonstrating the visual intimacy of their relationship. His descriptions lend the partner a slightness, a delicacy, a lightness of form that brings into (soft) focus the couple's tenderness. "A little tired" doesn't make the lover seem haggard or worn; it gives him "a thoughtful, deepening grace."
This familiarity so makes it seem as if the lover is alive that the speaker notes in the next stanza that he "didn't for a moment doubt that [he] was dead," but that somehow that death doesn't matter. It is as if the lover had been out and about "-at work, maybe?-" and so, in this dream, death does not seem the most pressing issue.
Indeed, there seems to be an idea of progress and change in the speaker's grief, for the narrator notes that the couple "seemed to be moving from some old house / where we'd lived, [with] // things in disarray." As a metaphor for the changing nature of their relationship, or instead, the speaker's grieving process, this seems to be a signal that things are moving forward. The old house is cluttered with boxes, presumably of emotional junk, the kind of detritus that piles up over time and time.
But this healing: this is not the point. This is only the narrative, and without people, a thick and real human, narrative is merely an outline, a series of facts, of challenges, of events. Sure, the speaker could have thought of his partner, even remembered different realities, but nothing is so real as a person's "physical fact." Memory only takes us so far. This is one of the facts of mankind. Perhaps it is a blessing, for it forces us to see, really look at, one another, and prevents us from being haunted by a lost person's exact presence (if that made sense). This poem, on the other hand, wonders if the lack of this exact presence haunts us, if what really marks a person's departure is that we can never remember them fully...
Which is why this visitation in a dream is such a gorgeous compromise between the two - it is one night, and one night only: enough to assure the speaker that his lover is not lost forever, that there is the possibility of life again. This is closure: the lover's face looming up out of the dark, smooth and real.
Okay, this is all I am up for tonight.