Carol Muske-dukes's poem "Our Side," published in 2003, is about the loss of a lover. Many of the poems in Sparrow, the collection in which this poem appears, are about death. The collection is dedicated to the poet's husband, David Dukes, who died unexpectedly in 2000. In "Our Side," the speaker tries to call back the spirit of someone she has loved and who has died. She wants him to return in some form to "our side," the side of the living. The speaker admits that she understands that this need to see "the lost," those who have died, is one-sided. The living, the speaker says, are the ones who have the need to be remembered. This view is the opposite of the belief and practice of most people, who visit the graves of the dead in attempts to remember them, to memorialize them. Although it is about death and about longing on the part of someone who has lost a lover, "Our Side" is not morbid or melancholic. By the end of the poem, readers are much more aware of the love felt by the speaker than they are of death. The poem is a love song rather than a requiem.
Our Side Summary
"Our Side" begins with an attempt by the speaker to understand what it must be like to be dead. The speaker begins by describing the "newly dead" as "disoriented" because they have crossed over into unfamiliar territory. Their first reaction, according to the speaker, is "to turn back." The speaker refers to the newly dead as having crossed "the great expanse of water." This crossing may refer to the symbolic crossing of the river that is often mentioned in poems and myths about death. The crossing also may be a reference to a favorite place in which the speaker and her departed lover may have spent time—the ocean's edge, which is mentioned later in the poem.
The speaker relates the great expanse of water to another kind of distance, that which is "inside each of them," that is, the newly dead. This distance, which the speaker does not quite define, is "steadily growing" inside of them. It is also this distance that "draws them away at last." Depending on the reader's religious or spiritual background, these lines can be interpreted in many ways. The distance may represent a god or a spiritual dwelling place, such as heaven. Because the distance is inside each of the departed, it also may be a reference to the soul. In this sense, the speaker may be referring to the soul's wanting to be reunited with the source of its energy, which is what is causing the dead to be drawn away. By using the phrase "at last" at the end of stanza 1, the speaker adds an element of release, as if the living endure life and the dead finally experience a sense of the peace they have been waiting for. This feeling is emphasized in stanza 2.
"Tenderness and longing lose direction," the speaker states. This notion is confusing and difficult to understand until the next phrase is added: "… all terror / and love in the cells slowly dissipate." The speaker imagines the release that the dead feel when they cross the great expanse of water. All worldly emotions, all connections with loved ones are finally lifted, or finally melted away. These burdens belong to the living, not the dead. The burdens are the feeling of loneliness and the emptiness that those left behind must bear. The ones who once supported them in love no longer care. "Despite our endless calling" is attached to stanza 2 by meaning as well as by structure. The dead release their emotions despite the fact that the ones whom they once loved are calling out to them. The thought is completed in stanza 3.
The first line of stanza 3 completes the thought that begins "Despite our endless calling," in stanza 2. The speaker continues, "their names fall away into the great canyons / of the infinite." Loved ones crying out to the dead, calling their names, eventually must face the fact that the newly dead cannot hear them. The names of the newly dead are like their bodies. They have become useless. A name is significant only in this life. Babies are born and given a name. The mention of that name conjures up the memories of the person the baby has become in life, all the experiences shared with the people who loved him or her. The name will always be closely followed by the image of that person. The newly dead, however, have no more need of names. They return to the place they inhabited before they were born, when they had no names. Their names "fall away" in this reality, as does everything else about their physicality on earth. The newly dead fall into the "great canyons of the infinite," a symbol of abstractions such as nothingness, eternity, the unknown, and a spiritual god or source.
By "They try to remember how to answer," the speaker means that the newly dead are unable to answer the cries of those left behind. She wants to believe that the newly dead do hear the cries, but because they have lost their physicality, the dead have lost all emotion and connection. They have forgotten how to speak, so they "turn away." In stanza 1, the speaker uses the phrase "turn back"; in stanza 3, she says "turn away." The direction has changed. In stanza 1, the newly dead appear to be contemplating coming back to earth, to life. By stanza 3, however, they turn away from life and the ones who are calling them, because they are "distracted." Something else apparently is calling to them—something that is more enticing than life on earth. The newly dead turn away "from the repetitive cries" of those left behind. The speaker, however, has not given up all hope of making contact. "What shall I call you now, lost sailor?" she asks. If the newly dead does not respond to his name, the speaker wonders, will he respond to something else? By using the adjective "lost," which corresponds to "disoriented," in stanza 1, the poet ties the stanzas together. The speaker also expresses hope, in a strange way, through the use of these two words. If the newly dead is disoriented and lost, there is still a chance that he may find his way back to her.
(The entire section is 2054 words.)