The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Stephen Dunn

The Ghost Song of the Retiree


Mornings after his usual eggs over easy

and in pursuit of someone kindred but gone,

he’d open the local paper to the obituaries,

noting what schools the dead had attended,

what positions they held and for how long.

Pitiful, he thought, how often he felt superior

or jealous. More and more he became aware

that his own past had ceased to exist,

but still trickled into each next moment. 


Everywhere he went, he heard stories of retirees

apparently unburdened by self-consciousness

who could go entire days without worrying

about what had escaped them for years.

One might have a passion for gardening,

Another would combine a love to rebuild

with a fascination for destruction.

Still others were happy hobbyists, or tolerated

the occasional dreariness of travel or of home.


His wish was to use his new-found leisure

to enter the unvisited parts of himself.

He thought of it like some grand opening

of windows in a smoke-filled room.

That he mostly found loneliness and neglect

and some other empty places around the heart --

this was anticipated by those in charge.

They provided a ceremony for long-time service,

a watch, and a gold, embossed plaque

along with a few honest pats on the back.

What lay ahead for him was up to him, of course,

and couldn’t be captured by camera or speech.

Over time he learned he’d need an astonishing array

of enthusiasms, and some deep fellow-feeling

just to barely hear the true rhythms of his elusive self.


The lies he succeeded in turning into achievements,

and the damning truths he couldn’t escape

found their places in his personal museum

of embarrassments. Soon it was lunch time

or walk-the-dog time, or time for him to once again

vainly interrogate some big why or how come. 

He wasn’t one of those retirees who knew the answers,

and he realized he only had a few more years

to plumb the mysterious and conjure a song

to some glorious unknown.  He wanted the right words

to come to him, magically, that would work as well

as his regimen of pills.  But he didn’t want to bargain

with some keeper of them or yield to anyone

smarter than himself or have to offer good cheer.




STEPHEN DUNN is the author of 20 books of poetry and prose. His Different Hours (Norton) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.  Tiger Bark Press has just brought out his new book of essays Degrees of Fidelity: Essays on Poetry and the Latitudes of the Personal. He lives in Frostburg, Maryland.


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