On. On. Stop. Stop.

In the old recording of the birthday party,
the voices of the living and the dead
instruct twelve absent friends
on the reliable luxury of gratitude.
The celebrated one hands out presents.
The dead dog barks once. We
take one another’s hands and follow their lead,
past the garden wall, out to the land
still stripped by winter. Those gone
do not usurp those here. We keep
the warning close, the timbre of their voices
mingling with the sounds of traffic
going much faster to its destinations.
Is it the size or the scale of the past
on the small reels of the cassette?
Someone gives her a new pot, which,
she exclaims, is too great a luxury for her.
Someone’s missing who can convert
the currencies. The old treasure
was dropped in the furrows
to await spring, with rings and pennies
and florins and other denominations
from those pockets and fingers.


About this poem:

"I was cleaning out some old boxes and found a cassette tape labeled with my grandmother’s name and a date, but had no idea what it was. I slipped it into the machine and switched it on, and heard what was a recording of her eightieth birthday party, during which she both gave and received presents—and there, suddenly present, voices of the living and the dead filled the room, all of us in a simultaneous moment, my relatives in a house in the Dutch countryside in 1988, amidst the noise of city traffic in 2012. The title is borrowed from one of Samuel Beckett’s radio plays, Embers (with its first injunction to turn the radio on)."

Saskia Hamilton

Copyright © 2013 by Saskia Hamilton. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on March 1, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.