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American Life in Poetry: ‘Why Do We Set the Table?’

Kwame Dawes

By Kwame Dawes

This poem is an elegant elegy to a father who has passed, captured in the rituals that families create as a way to remember, to honor and to even celebrate. The extra place set at table before a feast of great sensual and emotional power reflects how mourning touches the deepest parts of our self. NaBeela Washington’s poem asks the question: “Why Do We Set the Table?” The poem is the answer.

Why Do We Set the Table?

At what temperature does blood

begin to boil? Thicken into a

roux, slip between bits of

basil, minced garlic,


Permeate chunks of spicy kielbasa,

bind a dash of salt, pepper, bubbles

roiling forth, then dissipating,

heat lowered to a hush;

Congeal from the shock of cool

clay dishes as a small mound

is delicately plated with a

large plastic spoon;

Spurt steam, burning both

nostrils, as we lean in to say

grace, my father’s seat empty,

placemat bare.

Poem copyright 2022 by NaBeela Washington, “Why Do We Set the Table?” from Crazyhorse, No. 101, Spring 2022. American Life in Poetry is made possible by the Poetry Foundation and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We do not accept unsolicited submissions.

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