DEAD SOULS | Poems by Ward Kelley

dead souls poem


From “histories of souls

The Wild Mouse

Where does one find the rim of Death?
Is there an exact point where the living
can reach out and touch small ghostly

souls who would flirt again with simple
mortality? We truly do not need to look
far for the inglorious, ubiquitous rim,

for it doubles as the arc on which
our very hearts revolve around
the universe of our own lives, although

not exactly an ellipse but more like a wild
mouse whose track contains great valleys
with steep hills just beyond capricious curves . . .

we carry it all within, this rim of Death,
but it’s difficult to hear the voices of
the dead who bravely flirt on and on . . .

on and on under the cacophony of us.

The Dead in Hammocks

It’s a matter of learning how to lounge
around correctly, occasionally
planting an obtuse comment,
one here, one there, into a favorite
carnal creature’s mind . . .

but care must be taken to avoid
being overt with such a comment,
for if one will play by the rules,
then certitude must be avoided
completely and resolutely . . .

for truth is only truth when it can
be perceived by various viewers
as their own distinct revelation,
and it is so difficult—the dead
complain about it all the time—
to get these obstinate poets
into the correct mental hammocks.

No Chaste Thoughts

The dead ones wanted to discuss
an obtuse topic, “Let’s talk about sex.”
But this subject has always,
at best, left me confused.

“There are no chaste thoughts,
only chaste words,” they point out,
“for everyone will seek a certain
indifference when enunciating sex,

while in their minds, great
ravishments are taking place.”
Again, where I might understand
the universal point of sex,

I still have this awkward feeling
that there are other, unseen,
compulsions at work upon our flesh.
The dead ones laugh and laugh.

“Come, come now, oh man of clay,
if you suspect us so, why not simply
become a celibate?” And can there be
anything more bothersome than

the laughter of the dead?


There is a whirling in my brain that always
speaks of ephemeral injections of silent,
unspeaking thoughts, fast but frail,
as though butterflies had mated
with hummingbirds . . .

the dead ones say this is possible,
as they whirl and peck, looking
for the soft spots of my soul where
one of their memories might be
injected . . .

” . . . so why would you wish
to know of death?” they cajole
a question as if it were a prank,
” . . . when you do so poorly at
the apprehension of life?”

I would think to answer this—
there are many, many answers,
you know—but the dead ones never
wait for a retort, as if they are often
saddened by their very own human nature.

Dancing in Front of the Glacier

If anything, the dead ones are quite
persistent, or maybe always keen,
to arrive at something succinct—
the word, the precise phrase, the cajoling—
that will produce the correct apprehending.

“If you would just consider
a dance of players,” the dead
ones illustrate, “say, at the base
of a glacier, a ballet of exquisite
limbs, with purity of flesh raised
in an art of physics; see them
play, watch them perform, tapity tap,
and then remove all the bodies
from this scene . . .

what is left in front of the glacier
is us.”

But who can buy such pleasantries?
As if so much importance must be
placed on actually seeing the dead ones . . .

such ingratitude disquiets
them greatly.

As Though

These slight, wispy conversations
with the dead ones are laced with
great perils of the metaphor for
they will go to any length to avoid

the succinct thought unless they are
certain you will interpret the succinct
as metaphor. “You are correct,”
the dead ones smile.

This will not do, will not go through
the layers necessary for communion,
but what else can you ascertain as
they flit and fall all the while calling

out to you as if you offered a salvation
not found on the other side of breath?
“You take yourself far too seriously,”
come the dead ones, calling, calling,

“It is your skin we want most.”

Book of the Dead

These poems do not go, you know,
through the spaces they were meant,
do not flow into the looks askance
or foliate into proper poundings . . .

they do not, do not do so, you know, but
all the while they mark and notate, notch
and draw, hoping to catch the notice of a god
while my soul can scurry unobserved to

somewhere I cannot seem to imagine.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead was a compilation of various charms and incantations meant to convince or trick the gods into allowing the soul to enter paradise.


South American Quartet by Ward Kelley

South American Quartet by Ward Kelley

 South American Quartet by Ward Kelley

South American Quartet

Ward Kelley



It would be better if trees burned people,
instead of these great fires we use to cloud
our sinful souls from ghosts of our futures.

Yet if trees burned us, smoke would be blacker,
and the smell of those flames not maternal,
protecting, as the scent of smoldering
wood assuages us.

Your black skin smells like safety, a hearth fire;
I didn’t think it, expecting wild
or spice smells to your thighs, not guessing you
so custodial.
I first saw you across the bus, when you
turned to apprehend my admiring eyes,
for beautiful women always quickly
detect him when a man looks them over.

It’s an evolved sense, is it not? To see
the man quickly, before any possible
impact occurs? Yet now your ancient eyes
assented there within your youthful face,
and I uplifted
like smoke wafting through foreign lands, a ghost
who learns nothing from the forests we burn
and burn, never learning why your dark limbs
seek to protect love, as deftly as you
deliver salvation to a white man.


You see, I wandered into the dead ones here,
in barren jungles filled with these odd ghosts
who don’t yet know how to use the tropics;
I first saw dead ones when they cavorted
across your black thigh . . . my hand sleepily
slid over your dark, custodial skin,
kicking up the dead ones like tiny imps
of dust flickering in rays of sunlight
which will penetrate a musty jungle.

I can feel your soft, penetrating skin
as a receptor of souls, and perhaps
this is where I belonged, there within you . . .
ah, little wisps, dead souls, syncopated
to my own soul, they say, “we all struggle,
struggle to belong . . . once there, we
all struggle, struggle to escape again.”
But why would they pronounce such cruel words here
on the tropics of your childless flesh?

Your black skin whispers one final message,
how we all produce such contrary lives,
and even the dead ones who now kick up
the earthy dust of our own breathing pulse
cannot accept contrary impulses
driving us both, pulsing, living and dead . . .

so salvation comes,
but it comes repeatedly . . .
by touching someone new . . .



Help me, help me, I am never coming
back to these wearisome mountains, never
returning to your cleverly black skin . . .
for white men do not truly ever know
how to simply return to pure women
who waited, and endured, for centuries.
Save me, save me, I never left, for good,
your custodial skin, never wandered
off from the belief in what waits for me
at your thighs, at your lips: the dead wait there . . .
you never told me your skin acted so
clever as to provide maternity
for both dead and breathing, and I now see
you are the words, but your eyes danced again,
again with joy from such consummation.
You now sought to marry me with the dead.
Yet must I leave? It’s not you who sends me
away, and not the dead . . . who always flit . . .
then at the circumference I felt it,
how I cannot see the enormity
of the terrible problem the dead souls
must solve, while they, themselves, flitting by,
do not own solutions provided me
by touching skin.


Then in the end, I walk alone;
there are no dead ones with their
rather odd counsel . . . no darkened
sirens whose black skin redeems
even the white devils . . . no
country, foreign, sensual,
where I can blend into the mass
of jungle souls.

There walks my own soul, alone,
given the chore to make sense
of this: this through which we wade,
this of which we touch, this skin
in which I live . . .

the worst of the loneliness
comes when I miss part of me –
the consequential pieces –
left behind me

as the price for loving you,
here in the foreign country
in which we breathe . . .

we love this terrible trade:
knowledge for flesh.

Danger Poem by Ward Kelley

Flexed Against the Danger
Ward Kelley

Trust cannot ever be spoken,
for it is the aphrodisiac of faith

and, like perfume, it cannot be seen
or heard or even described; it can

only be sensed as an aroma by
the soul who is always flexed

against the danger of false lovers.
Trust cannot ever be spoken, and

the one who does speak it instead
kills it, for trust can only be earned,

quietly and steadily, always by the acts
of the lovers and never by their words.

History of the Ghost Poem by Ward Kelley

History of the Ghost
Ward Kelley

The ghost observes his daughter graduate
from college, receiving her degree in

history; to his view she appears entirely
too young to be accepting this diploma,

she still seems to be ten years old, with
eyes who could look upon the ghost and

see only good, see the man devoid of all
his flaws, and it was this flaw of her own

sight that made the ghost worship her, for
no one else had ever sustained this degree

of admiration for such a long time, indeed
time usually diminished such acceptance,

turning most others into eventual endorsement
of all his ghostly properties . . . and here she

goes, in awkward gown, walking forcefully
toward the podium, her eyes tilted to an odd

degree, as though she saw the ghost hovering
at her elbow, thanking her ever so reverently.

Fidelities Poem by Elisha Porat

My Old Fidelities

My old fidelities,
Oh, my old fidelities have abandoned me
Lately, as though they already observe
My impending fade, my nearing oblivion
Which comes sneaking toward me.
My old fidelities,
I revere them: a far off Mount Hermon,
The ash of oak trees, the smoke of bonfires,
Sweet Tea, a drink with old friends,
Forgotten notebooks whose leaves
Are badly torn, your arm that was
Stretched to me at the grove with the thin
Hair that wonders and waves
Within the wind, the silent movie of my
Old sights who always escape from me,
And that heartrending pursuit, to chase
All what was . . . and will never be again.

© 2004 Elisha Porat
translated from the Hebrew by the author and Ward Kelley

The Young Students Poem by Elisha Porat

The Young Students

“The young dead soldiers do not speak.

Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses: who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night when the clock counts.”
— Archibald MacLeish.

On the morning of Memorial Day I walk into the class.
“The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless, they are heard . . . ”
I read to my young students;
My voice echoes in the silent space of the class.
Their eyes are fastened to my lips,
Fear beats upon my face:

I’m the one who knows,
I’m the one who remembers;
I bite my lip, and begin to cry.

Abruptly I flee from the classroom,
As the eyes of my young students
Drill into the silent space in my brain.
Speak to me, dear children,
How I truly need to hear
Your voices now.

Translated from the Hebrew by Elisha Porat and Ward Kelley

Sexuality of the Dead Poem by Ward Kelley

Sexuality of the Dead
Ward Kelley

“Our sexuality,” the dead ones wish
to enter a topic that I usually avoid
at all costs, “is terribly difficult
to convey to those of you entrapped

in the breathing with all your
malfunctioning fleshy addendum.”
I shoo then away — wispy, giant
mosquitoes — but they always

flit right back in. “Now listen,
listen, you need the sex to catch
a hint of our own mortality,
but as communication from

breathing one to breathing one
it really is a faulty device.”
Who can argue? “But over
on this side of the soul, oozing

around without bodies, the sex
is purely one of communication,
dead one to dead one, and one
does it all the time, time,

all the time . . . until one yearns
too much for imperfect flesh:
so time must then become more
solid for one thus afflicted, so much

they find all the time to be born back.”

Credit list:


Two novels, “Divine Murder” and “Keenly Alive, Tony,”
are represented by The Sternig & Byrne Literary Agency


“comedy incarnate,” forthcoming on cd rom
by Kedco Studios (Las Vegas, NV)

“histories of souls” forthcoming as an ebook
by Word Wrangler Publishing, Inc.

Of the 608 published pieces, some have found their way into:


ACM, Another Chicago Magazine
The GSU Review
The Listening Eye
The Lucid Stone
Mad Poets Review
The Old Red Kimono
Porcupine Literary Magazine
River King
Sulphur River Review


Big Bridge
Lynx: poetry from Bath
Poetry Magazine.Com
The Rose & Thorn
San Francisco Salvo
2River View
Unlikely Stories


Betrayed by the Very Soul Poem by Ward Kelley

Betrayed by the Very Soul
Ward Kelley


pounce, it will pounce
and it will fall, it will sidle
and it will stall yet all the while

slide from side to sunny
side, slipping here to there,
out the back, then up the wall,

across the yard and through
the fence, down the alley,
down the gutter, up the sluice,

then rolling, rolling into
the pathways of your heart,
artery here, vein throb there,

pump, pump, breathe in,
breathe out, pump, pump,
then flop the substance

of it all from the dumptruck
that at last became your heart,
dumped into the coal bin of your

very soul, and that was what
the pounce was all about,
you know, the pounce, the little

pounce, it’s how you slipped
back inside the breathing,
never intending . . . perhaps

wanting, but never saying so,
perhaps considering, but never
taking a step, an actual step,

then betrayed, or fulfilled,
but mostly betrayed, by your very
soul who always thinks it knows

much more than you.