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One day I’ll lift the telephone
and be told my father’s dead. He’s ready.
In the sureness of his faith, he talks
about the world beyond this world
as though his reservations have 5
been made. I think he wants to go,
a little bit—a new desire
to travel building up, an itch
to see fresh worlds. Or older ones.
He thinks that when I follow him 10
he’ll wrap me in his arms and laugh,
the way he did when I arrived
on earth. I do not think he’s right.
He’s ready. I am not. I can’t
just say good-bye as cheerfully 15
as if he were embarking on a trip
to make my later trip go well.
I see myself on deck, convinced
his ship’s gone down, while he’s convinced
I’ll see him standing on the dock 20
and waving, shouting, Welcome back.
The opening lines are ironic considering that the title of the poem--"An Elegy For My Father, Who Is Not Dead"--indicates the poem will be a lament for the loss of his father, who is still alive. The approach to the subject of death is slightly humorous. But the seriousness is established quickly when we realize that the father and son have different views on the afterlife.
Clearly, the poet's father looks forward to death almost as a new travel adventure to see "fresh worlds. Or older ones." In any case, the father views death as adventure. He even envision holding his holding his child in his arms when his child arrives in the afterlife.
The sad reality is that the two have fundamentally different conceptions of their readiness to go, which may be the product of their respective ages--the old, ready; the young, not ready.
This gets to the heart of the difference: the poets father has faith in an orderly afterlife in which he will be able to see his son and welcome his child in his protective arms. The son, however, has no faith that the afterlife even exists, so he believes that, after death, the two will never meet.
The poem is framed by two irreconcilable views of what happens after death. At the same time, however, the love shared by the speaker and his father is strong.