Listening to the Dead: Alexis David on Eileen Cleary’s 2AM with Keats

Eileen Cleary’s 2 a.m. with Keats begins with a lament for the dead. This could simply be a book of grieving, namely the loss of the poet, Lucie Brock-Broido, but, it is more than grief. It is a book that questions where we go when we die, that “grassless field” (41) and asserts that the dead can cross back to us, “you’ll stay among us in the sun’s murmur” (41). Brock-Broido becomes a presence which the speaker waits for, “Since your last visit, I’ve listened/for you. In a screen door chain,/chattering against its inner window./Or the shift of dishes in their rack” (3). The beauty of these poems comes from the strange pairings: death and domestic objects, red keys and ghost pumpkins, and oh the most beautiful, hair smelling of “rose milk” and “mint” (27).

Keats also visits the speaker. The speaker wonders if his ghost is that of Brock-Broido. Both poets visit from other realms, “How is it that you made/your way to me? Are you/interplanetary? Have you/cut through elderberry?” (15). Cleary mixes nature imagery with her longing for Brock-Broido and her admiration of Keats, “I pray that you open the gate for John Keats/to my rose-walled room” (14). This is a book of keys and doors and rooms. Poetry becomes the room where these poets can gather; a room that is full of a “moss-pink moon” (14) and “fattening clouds,/a park filled with woodlands . . .the wind, the brilliant grass” (12). Nature becomes a grounding force in these sometimes ephemeral poems.

Is this a book questioning death? At times, I read it that way. Death isn’t a finality, but rather “Death that separates you” (16). It is another door. Inside these poems, anything is possible. Cleary asks Keats if his mother left him and then she becomes mother to Keats, “If you were mine, I’d name you/star and I’d be astrophile” (17). Then, curiously, the speaker writes, “Some, we can’t save./Your mother and mine” (17). Are some people lost to death in a way that others aren’t? Why can’t we save these mothers and yet easily talk to dead poets late at night? Is there something about poetry that makes poets eternal? These are the questions I asked while reading 2 a.m. with Keats. Jennifer Martelli writes that “It would minimize the reach of this brilliant collection to call it an elegy or a eulogy, or even a love story to Lucie Brock-Broido or John Keats – though it is all of those things.” It does feel too simple to say this book is an elegy. It wanders between realms. It stays up late at night, waiting to talk with Brock-Broido and Keats. The poems “never want to leave/the voices in a room” (21). It consistently delivers fresh and strange images, “How many men have/become trees?” (26).  Many of the images feel like something out of the Renaissance: the castles and the keys, the pink tinted walls and moons but then, in the poem “2 a.m. Keats Visitations,” the speaker asserts that Keats would like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I found this intertextuality startling—the color blue and the mention of “acanyopsia” (the inability to see the blue tint). This pairing startled me awake. The mixture of a Romantic poet paired with a contemporary writer created a kind of quilting of time periods, reinforcing ghostly spaces where the dead can visit. Additionally, these images quilted together strengthen the line, “We stitch the interspace/of art and body” (18).

2 a.m. with Keats is a gorgeous book layered with sadness, longing, and also a reimagining of death: “Don’t say the father died; say night falls/as if a father off a horse” (37). However, it is a collection of poems that asks us not to forget the beauty of life. In a later poem, “Death Mask,” Cleary writes that the wax preserves the body but “it doesn’t save. . . your/sweet music, honeyed and unheard” (40). Perhaps this book of poems is the vessel which saves this sweet music of lives well-lived.

Alexis David is a poet and fiction writer who holds a BA from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, an M.Ed from Canisius College and an MFA from New England College. Dancing Girl Press published her chapbook called The Names of Animals I Have Loved. Additionally, she reviews books of poetry for North of Oxford, Compulsive Reader and The Masters Review. Links to her other published work can be found here: