Emily Van Kley

My Dead Grandfather


My dead grandfather no longer lives in his apartment

though his last dishes are clean in the dishwasher,

though his leather gym bag lies unzipped in a grimace

behind the bedroom closet door. My dead grandfather

does not sit at his desk and write checks

to black civic organizations with his pen anchored

in agate. My dead white grandfather, whose skin

will not retain its significance, does not underline

scores at the tops of prisoners’ Christian curricula.

He neither shambles across the hall for one ex-wife’s pot roast

nor drives ten minutes over state lines to make claims

on morning coffee with his first ex-wife. When I open

the cabinets and every drawer in his apartment,

my dead grandfather does not prevent me from considering

the hand-held vacuum cleaner, the two small wineglasses,

the elegant hammer and book seal with his initials, also mine.

My dead grandfather stays at the church where he is boxed

in a manly crate of brass and satin. I am not afraid,

when we arrive, of his withered mouth sewn straight

over ceramic teeth, of the drill-row forehead unable

to imply a thing from temper to concentration, the hands

improbably folded one over the other, the knuckles

wax-museum pale. I am not afraid of the body

which has been through the busted-brick labor

of dying, not of its shrunkeness, its itness, its pall.

And yet a grandfather is a notion that does not ash away

like a last cigarette ground into pavement. My dead

grandfather, laid out in a fine blue suit at the altar

of Lansing First Reformed. Myself a child

who has touched his things.



“My Dead Grandfather” previously appeared in The Iowa Review.


Emily Van Kley’s poetry has won the Iowa Review and Florida Review awards, and is forthcoming in The Way North: Upper Michigan New Works, from Wayne State University Press. Though she grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, she now lives in Olympia, Washington, where she works at the local food co-op. Her work is included in Godiva Speaks: A Celebration of Olympia Area Women Poets.