I sometimes talk to friends who have died. Especially to friends who acted as spiritual guides for me during their lives here. I continue to ask their advice when I’m in distress or need guidance. I believe there’s a very thin and permeable line between mortal life and eternal life. This is why Jeffery Harrison’s “Visitation Rights” resonates with me. The poem melds the living and the dead, past and present, in ways deeply true to psychological and spiritual reality. I also like the poem’s play with the word “visitation.” Its primary meaning here is the appearance on earth of someone who has died. But hovering within the word are always its supernatural reverberations—its meaning of an appearance to us of the divine—as well as its etymological kinship to “vision.” So it feels right that the poem closes by appealing to “visions,” expressing a desire for them that (the poem has argued) is fully justified.
Two nights before what would have been
his fiftieth birthday, I dreamed my brother,
dead almost three years, came back
for our grandmother’s funeral.
Of all of us grandchildren,
he was the best about visiting her.
She hadn’t died, but that didn’t stop me
from thinking this should be allowed,
the dead should be able to come back
briefly, on important occasions
like a relative’s funeral—
when we need them most.
It makes so much sense I wonder why
it wasn’t part of the plan from the beginning—
just some visitation rights
with very strict rules, if that’s what it takes.
I know, the dream was a visitation,
but I hardly remember the dream.
We were in the same room together,
talking as we had in life,
but I don’t remember what we said.
And I didn’t get to ask him why
he’d killed himself, or tell him
that our grandmother had never known,
darkened, unrecoverable. I want
something more. One or two waking visions—
that’s all I’m really asking for.
Jeffrey Harrison is the author of five full-length books of poetry—The Singing Underneath (1988), selected by James Merrill for the National Poetry Series, Signs of Arrival (1996), Feeding the Fire (2001), Incomplete Knowledge(2006), which was runner-up for the Poets’ Prize, and Into Daylight, published in 2014 by Tupelo Press as the winner of the Dorset Prize—as well as of The Names of Things: New and Selected Poems, published in 2006 by Waywiser Press in the U.K. A recipient of Guggenheim and NEA Fellowships, as well as other honors, he has published poems in The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Nation, Poetry, The Yale Review, The Hudson Review, American Poetry Review, The Paris Review, Poets of the New Century, The Twentieth Century in Poetry, and in many other magazines and anthologies. He has taught at George Washington University, Phillips Academy, where he was Writer-in-Residence, College of the Holy Cross, Framingham State University, the Stonecoast MFA Program, and the Solstice MFA Program, and he has visited many schools to read from his work and discuss poetry with students. He lives in Massachusetts.
The above image is by Elvert Barnes, and has been edited to remove writing on the card. The image is edited and used with permission under a Creative Commons license.