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Poets Online Archive

Anniversary of My Death

May 2021

W.S. Merwin died on March 15, 2019. He died at home at the age of 91, in the house he built in Hawaii, among the thousands of palms he planted. On the first anniversary of his death, I posted on the blog a poem by Merwin titled "For the Anniversary of My Death" (from his collection The Second Four Books of Poems).

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day   
When the last fires will wave to me...

I found the idea in Merwin's poem of writing a poem that imagines what you would have to say on the anniversary of your death unique. It sounds like a depressing idea but there is the wonderful optimism in the poem of having passed that day every year without knowing it. 

Today might be the anniversary of my death, and considering that possibility, perhaps I should also be "bowing not knowing to what."

The May 2021 writing prompt was to write a poem for the anniversary of your death. It could be the first anniversary or any year after. It also could be funny. I think the prompt is more open to possibilities than the title might suggest at first.
For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


Has it been a year already?
Has it been
ten thousand years already?
Or has it been only
a moment
since that moment
that felt like getting out of school early
because I had an appointment--
pushing open the heavy doors
and walking out into the day
and there was a whole world going on out there
and it had been going on out there
the whole time
I’d been stuck inside with time
and teachers and rules
and equations and parsed sentences--
But now here I was among the tribe
of the free,
and I could go this way
or I could go that way
or I could just sit down right here on this bench
and look around for a while
at all the freedom
that was mine and also the work crew’s
breaking for lunch beneath their ladders,
and also the woman’s
pushing her baby carriage on the sidewalk,
and also the man’s
walking his small dog and smoking a cigarette--
and it belonged to the cars
whooshing by with a sound like
the wind in the trees
and the wind in my hair
and the wind all around me and inside me.
And then, suddenly, there was my mother
looking somehow a little different
in all her freedom and all my freedom,
until she rolled down her window
and waved at me to come, now, hurry,
because I had an appointment--
which felt like a real buzzkill
and I briefly considered turning around
and walking away from her
and going off on my own somewhere
to be alone and free for a little longer,
or maybe for forever.
But then I realized
there was nowhere for me to go
except home.

Paul Hostovsky


The day was as it will be again
Quotidian, pedestrian, a bit humid.
I could tell, as you are now telling
As I am foretelling how thuddingly ordinary
It was and is and will be
Tenaciously tentative, not a party
On two feet, my toe sketching
Some inchoate premonition in the sand
An effort to keep ennui at bay.
The broken, pebbled, used-to-be grassy grounds
Continue to spawn weeds despite
The foot traffic becoming
Even more obnoxious as the East End
Turns, like me, intense, perturbed, hasty.
All this amid the constancy of the ocean tide
Breakers of all sizes and valances
Pitching against the bland, hard-pack sand
That catches some water
And tosses some back.

Rob Friedman


Not my birth, but my death.
No reminders on calendars.
No engraved stone with a date.
No mourners.
Some records in some office,
in some electronic clouds,
if one wanted to know.
But no one does.
We all have our origins.
Ancestors who said annus for year,
versus from vertere, to turn,
like a sonnet no one ever reads now.

Charles Michaels

a poem for the anniversary of my death

We cannot love
But suffer loss
It is the price we pay
To cherish

But if you would
Remember me
On any other day
But this

I said goodbye reluctantly
Left you alone against my will
The life we built together gone
Our time reduced to memories

Celebrate our love, instead
On random days throughout the year
I'll come to visit unannounced
We'll share some laughter and some tears

This is the bargain that we made
You May, me November
We should have no regrets
Love still strong in late December

I have no need for monuments
Banner headlines, tickertape parades
No need for Awards given in my name
Buildings, Stadiums or Holidays

I loved and was loved in return
You and our family were
If not the boundaries, then
The center of my world

You need not choose between
Moving on and holding dear
Do not mourn this day I died
Commemorate the living years

Frank Kelly

after W.S. Merwin

How many important dates I've let slip by,
not thinking of births and losses till belated.
Even the great earthquake – searching
for survivors among the dead. Was that
portending? How many times I've said – but
only to myself - this could be my last.
It joined the rest of possible days to return
again. Like that time a headache
brought me at midnight under OR lights,
and I woke up in another room
to a soft sweet dawn beckoning me
out the window that wasn’t quite ready,
that year, to open.

Taylor Graham


My phone thinks it is so smart.
It reminds me that today is your "anniversary."
Not your wedding, not your birthday,
but your death, now a year in the past.
Of course, I put the date into its memory.
Did I want to be reminded?
What did I think I would do today?
You, not a believer in anything after death,
would laugh at this reminder,
at the idea that I would talk to you,
even in a form of a poem,
though you loved poetry
and were my best reader.
I read this aloud to you.
I try to imagine your response
to this poem, to my reminder.
"Delete," I hear you not say.

Lianna Wright


Each year I wake on a day that will be
my last in some not-to-distant future,

an ordinary day, when the sun rises
in the East, sets in the West, or it rains

and clouds obscure the sun and people run
for shelter as winds blow and leaves flail,

or at night as darkness shrouds the earth,
the smell of timeless depth pervading all.

Maybe a child is born that day who saves
the earth, or who is the straw that breaks it.

Maybe one of mankind’s many gods stoops
to earth that day from some celestial sphere

to bring long awaited justice to those
who pine in bitterness for love and peace.

Or maybe some old, unseen rock tumbles
into earth and ends the Anthropocene.

No matter. It will be

a day like any other day, just so,
as Brueghel shows in the Fall of Icarus.

Robert Miller


I wake from a dream that told me today is the day I will die.
Not today this year, but on this day in some future year.
It's a good day to die.
It's not a holiday
(no one wants to die on Christmas)
not my birthday or any friend or family event
(I checked my contacts calendar)
Of course, Wikipedia shows me lots of births and deaths
and historic events for today,
but none resonate in any way with me.
Yes, a good day to die.
Not that I can plan for that
(no suicide for me)
but now each year on this day,
I can be ready.

Pamela Milne


My cremated essence released a restless spirit
discontent to lay in deadly earnest; ceramicists
whistled while they mixed my ashes & quicklime—
an opalescent blue glaze--immortalizing my fired dust
on ageless urns baring eggshell crackle thumbprints.

Graveyard neighbors crowd shoulder to shoulder
like angus bulls riding rails in cattle cars
expensive coffins treat flesh no different
than corpses draped in muslin shrouds
tossed irreverently into a potter’s field.

Another year’s come and gone since I’ve
passed on unnoticed by Facebook friends who
continue to send me birthday greetings,
happy face & winking emoji salutations
as personal as our arm’s length relationships.

Sterling Warner