My sister has commented in the past that I seem to be most drawn to reading and appreciating poetry that deals in some way with the subject of death. Perhaps. Some of my favorite, influencing poems are “Sunshine,” by Robert Service, “The Legend of the Organ Builder,” by Julia Dorr, “The Last Man,” by Thomas Campbell, and “Derelict,” by Young E. Allison. Each of these centers solidly around the subject of death in its own way. “Sunshine” follows the final thoughts and feelings of a man whose wife has died as he himself succumbs to the same ailment that took her. “The Legend of Organ Builder” tells the story of a young man who wins fame by building a legendary organ that plays of its own accord wherein he arrogantly abandons his bride believing she betrayed him and later, when he realizes his mistake, returns home from abroad just in time to attend her funeral—during which he himself dies. “The Last Man” sets your mental vision on the remains of a dead Earth where the last living human speaks to the setting sun, knowing full well that he himself is soon to follow. “Derelict” leads you across the deck and through the holds of a derelict ship where all hands have perished during a mutiny, ostensibly triggered during a bout of drunken revelry.
So maybe it is no wonder that I find myself drawn to the subject as a poet.
|The Old Pain|
There are too many anniversaries
that haunt the days and years as they go by
and all too many treasured memories
that stir within the old pain to a sigh.
This is the day we met, the maple leaves
that flourish by the driveway, then as now,
were sunset red and swaying in the breeze,
dancing down to dress the walk below.
We paused amid the fumes of regular,
eyes locking for a moment like a spell
was cast between the rooftops of our cars,
enchanting us into a mutual thrall.
By time this maple tree had filled its crown
with lush green cover, we assembled all
our friends and family, and made a vow
to watch as one its colors fade and swell.
The months that followed blurred to a montage,
of salient years, each moment lived in full—
then all at once the sheen of that mirage
dissolved to barren sheets of salt and soil.
The call came in the evening as the sun
sent slanting shades of light across the play
of leaves that only barely had begun
to bob out infant hands in tremulous sway.
Your splintered bones lay tubed to life support—
I just assumed long hours kept you late.
It never once occurred to me your heart
beat faintly in the latexed hands fate.
I raced to reach your side, to touch your hand,
to seek some indication from the staff
that you would be okay, your golden band
would not become a pendant cenotaph.
But then the surgeons came who strove to hold
your spirit tethered to your heedless form.
They bade me sit—my limbs grew weak and cold
as they explained your limbs were merely warm.
The lightning storm of self behind your brows
had lost its charge—the person that you were
no longer lived within the clay, and now
the clay was all that lived, and nothing more.
For months I hovered near and watched your eyes,
your cheeks, your hands, your every subtle curve,
for any sign that you were still inside,
alive in some mysterious reserve.
But there was nothing, just the rise and fall
of ribs responding to the steady drone
of air pumped through a plastic tube to fill
your lungs that would not function on their own.
Your bones were mended, lacerations healed.
The nurses kept the pressure sores at bay.
For all of this, your soul could not be hailed
back from the stars into that quiet clay.
Insurance coverage tapped and savings gone,
there was no choice except to make the call.
The doctors came—with somber denouement
you were declared as unrecoverable.
I held your hand in both of mine. Machines
were gently disconnected. Line graphs
that danced desultory rhythms on the screens
lost all expression to an air of grief.
To think it happened only blocks from here,
close enough I might have heard the sound
of metal smashing, sirens speeding near
to lift your shattered body from the ground.
To think that as the surgeons cracked your chest
and opened up your skull to free the blood,
I watched the evening news, reclined at rest,
and snacked on crackers in a tranquil mood.
It’s fitting, then—I guess—these maple leaves
turn red as gore around the time we met,
a keen reminder that our vivid lives
lay at the mercy of an unguessed fate.
This is the day we met, a day of cheer—
or so it was a million years ago.
Your ashes dream throughout the tireless years
above the hearth—a ghostly afterglow.
Maybe I use poetry to in some way explore and seek understanding into the concept of death. Maybe the inevitable has so occupied my thoughts since I was still a toddler that it only comes naturally to me now. Maybe it is the one thing we all share, no matter what. Even if there might be some immortal among us, walking through the ages observing our histories, he too must eventually die as the sun expands and incinerates the upper mantle from of our world. Death is something every living thing has in common. It is a bond we all share. So, then, is tragedy, loss, and finding some way to live and move on.