Tag Archives: death

Poem: “The Silence”

“Pareja (Couple)” by Daquella manera 

On those days when, because you felt attacked,
you just won’t speak, it’s like a dress rehearsal
for one of us being dead. (So, a prehearsal?)
Can’t speak for you, how you’d react,
but for myself, if you die, I know only:
I’d be lonely.

After the slow dispersal
of the acquisitions of the years
from yard sales, impulses, unfinished plans–
after the children’s and grandchildren’s tears,
(their own mortality foretold in Gran’s)
there’d be an emptiness.

Routine unravels:
I’d need an act of will to even shave–
the dogs don’t care how I behave.
All I need’s here in cupboards, shelves, on line.
I’d be just fine…
apart from growing restlessness.

I guess I’d restart travels.
Meanwhile I’ve learned how it will be
to live without you, just your memory,
a silent apparition in this room and that,
the ghost of one who used to laugh and chat.

Think of this as a melancholy love poem, written in a temporary (thank goodness) state of being that can occur in any relationship.

This poem was published this month in Snakeskin No. (or #) 276. I feel proud to be in the issue, as I rate it as one of the best ever in the 20+ years that George Simmers has been putting the magazine out. Though much of the poetry is formless (but still worth reading!), there is some truly impressive work by Tom Vaughan and Scott Woodland, with well-structured work by Robert West, Nick Browne and Jerome Betts, and with interesting innovations in form by Marjorie Sadin, Claudia Gary and George himself–in this last, the character of the verse becomes more lively as the character in the verse becomes more alive.

Technically the form of the poem–uneven lengths of iambics, all lines rhyming but not in a structured way–is one that allows the line breaks to echo your intact chunks of thought as well as the rhythms of speech. It is the form of Eliot’s Prufrock and, earlier, of Arnold’s A Summer Night:

And the rest, a few,
Escape their prison and depart
On the wide ocean of life anew.
There the freed prisoner, where’er his heart
Listeth will sail;

It is a casual form, but it retains enough of the hooks of more formal verse to make it easy to memorise and recite.

Sonnet: “From the Sudden Sun”

Life bioengineers its seamless rounds
with green leaves scarleting in fierce blue skies,
falling from sudden sun or winds that rise
with violin-sad sighing, dying, sounds.
Toddlers in pointlessly expensive clothes
with pregnant women breadily approach
some non-migrating geese which with reproach
lift in unfrantic flight to lake’s repose.
Despite such fertile life, the living leaves
blaze with the imminence of winter’s touch
and dead leaves blow beyond the groundsman’s clutch
in a wind chilled for one who disbelieves
that life entails the sudden cutting short
of your expression flowering in mid

Another of my existential sonnets, first published by Bewildering Stories (thanks, Don Webb). And, again, Don gave it a crisper title than my original “The Interplay of Life and Death in Fall”. I wrote this in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, watching the Canada geese at a small lake behind an upscale not-really-rural office building. Fall is, like every season, intensely evocative of human life.

I admit the ending involves a cheap trick–but leaving off the last word is designed to drive home the thought of mortality, and the missing rhyme is a perfect one… at least with an English accent, if not an American one…

 

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Gail White, “Anecdotal Evidence”

Gail White

Gail White

ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE

My aunt who brought her kidney function back
By eating grapefruit seeds for fifty days
Makes no impression on our local quack.
It’s anecdotal evidence, he says.
There are no reproducible results.
Another person might eat grapefruit seeds
For fifty days and cease to have a pulse.
Cause and effect’s the evidence he needs.
The evidence is all in favor of
The proposition that the dead are dead,
Despite our bitter hope and wistful love.
Yet when my mother died, my father said
That just before the chill that would not thaw,
Her face lit up with joy at what she saw.

Gail White writes: “One poem out of a lifetime’s work is hard to choose, but I find that when I think back over many years of sonnets, my mind keeps settling on this one (first published in Measure). The opening is light (and fictional), but the final sentence on my mother’s death is serious (and true). Perhaps for that reason it has stayed near my heart.”

Gail White is the resident poet and cat lady of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Her poems appear in several of the Potcake Chapbooks, available from Sampson Low Publishers; her books ASPERITY STREET and CATECHISM are available on Amazon. She is a contributing editor to Light Poetry Magazine. “Tourist in India” won the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award for 2013.

Sonnet: “Viking Slave”

Viking funeral

Why did they make me swallow this mead muck?
My lord, alive, would barely let me drink.
They wouldn’t treat his wife this way, I think.
Now all I am is something they can fuck.
They say this way they’re sharing in their lord,
Behaving as he did with me, his slave.
And now they launch his boat upon the wave,
The dragon boat with him and me aboard.
Just me, his horse, his sword… the boat’s been fired;
An honour, just for me, not for his wife;
So with him I will end this stage of life
And go with him to Asgard… I’m so tired,
Couldn’t move even if I wasn’t tied.
They told his wife he loved her too. They lied.

This sonnet was published in the Rat’s Ass Review, Summer 2020 issue. The image of the burning longship funeral, complete with much-used female slave, goes back to the writings of Ahmad ibn Fadlan. In 922 he was sent as part of an embassy from the Caliph of Baghdad to the king of the Volga Bulgars, and ibn Fadlan wrote several pages on the Vikings who had settled along the Russian river Volga. (The very word Russia comes from “Rus”, Vikings from southern Sweden.)

Unfortunately for the burning ship image we love, the Viking chief’s boat was burnt on the shore of the river–at least in ibn Fadlan’s account. That allowed ship, chief and slave to be entombed. But it’s still a great image. Perhaps in other times and places…

 

Sonnet: “Last Will and Testament”

I, Robin, being of sound mind, declare
the Cryonics Institute shall have my corpse.
That’s where I’ll rest, if I can get shipped there,
no matter how friends stare, family gawps.
“I”, “corpse” and “rest” are contradictory, true,
because we’re into science frontier realms
where problem-solving causes problems anew,
where human thought both helps and overwhelms.
Limitless lifespan, or apocalypse?
Both feasible as we reach out through space.
Cryonics is a ticket for both trips…
or none at all, if humans lose our race.
Enjoy this puzzle-path, solve it and thrive.
Drive to arrive alive. Strive to survive.

Another of my existential sonnets, this one just published in Star*Line, the quarterly publication of SFPA, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association, now in its 43rd year. Star*Line is one of those tolerant poetry magazines which will publish anything that appeals to editor Vince Gotera, from formal verse to experimental poetry–so long as it deals with space ships or time travel, dragons or golems and so on, of course.

Technically this is a Shakespearean sonnet, i.e. it’s in iambic pentameter and rhymes ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Each of the 4-line blocks is a complete thought, describing the existential situation being faced. There is a volta or turn (but it’s weak) before the final couplet which moves from description to prescription: the couplet is a call to action.

By the way, I am changing the poem’s title with this blog post–it appears in Star*Line with the first line as the title.

Sonnet: “Bring on the Violins”

Bring on the violins, the falling leaves,
the wistful ending to a misty day.
The long game’s over and we ride away
to sunset Heaven that no one believes.
Our world is dying, yet here no one grieves:
Earth warms, seas rise, but Wall Street’s still in play…
and we ourselves are aging anyway.
We all face death, and there’ve been no reprieves.
And yet, and yet…robotics and AI,
gene therapy, unlimited life span,
promise an almost-here-and-now sublime,
an unknown life, with our old life gone by.
Trumpet a fanfare for the Superman,
music for dancing to the end of time.

This sonnet has just been published in the Amsterdam Quarterly, this spring’s issue being on the theme of Beginnings and Endings. That may be relevant for our Covid-19 catastrophe, but of course the theme was determined a year ago, and life and death have merely decided to smile on AQ ironically.

But we were all facing death before this latest coronavirus came along. As the saying goes, “Perfect health is simply the slowest rate at which you can die.” And interwoven with death is always new life, never an exact repetition of the old life and often dramatically better. The real issue is, will the new life come at the expense of the old, or can the old reform and regenerate itself, renew itself without needing to die? The avoidance of death has been the quest of religion and medicine since those disciplines (or that discipline) originated. It is great driver of culture, and the pot of gold at the foot of the never-quite-reached rainbow.

Technically this is a correctly structured Petrarchan sonnet, with an initial octave (in this case of existential doom and gloom) rhyming ABBAABBA, followed by a volta (in this case a reversal to hope) for the sestet that rhymes CDECDE.

The sonnet is a marvellous structure for expressing an argument in a compact way.

Poem: “The Train Will Stop”

“The train will stop for ten minutes at the next station.
If you wish to make this your annual vacation,
please reboard in nine minutes.” The travellers gaze
at the countryside slowing past, consider ways
to take more than nine minutes for a break
but, looking down a slight curve in the track,
see no way to get out and back
nor a real reason they should take
the risk. The train will go…
and what else do they know?
They’ll stay till dropped
at some end stop.
Descend.
The end.

This little piece of existential angst appears in the current Bewildering Stories. It was written, submitted and accepted long before the current Covid-19 crisis came along, which it in no way relates to. In fact, in the awareness that we are all mortal and that everyone’s journey will have an end stop regardless, you might even say this suggests that in the Grand Scheme of Things the Covid-19 situation is trivial. The bigger issue is: eventually we all die. A solution to that would be far more dramatic than a successful Coronavirus vaccine.

Technically? Not a tightly formed poem – the initial lines are straggly, but as they shorten they tighten into iambics. The rhymes too are erratic, mostly in couplets but not quite. Not a perfect poem. Flippantly you could ask, In the Grand Scheme of Things and in the present circumstances, why should this matter? And the answer is, The level of artistic quality always matters; ultimately, it’s the most you can hope to achieve and be remembered by.

Poem: “Head of the Table”

Your grandparents die
And your children are born;
Then your parents die
Then grandchildren are born;
And you move one more seat
Round the mad table
To the head of the table,
At which point you’re expected to go.

As when the crow came
Wild, not tame – all the same
It cawed you the news
That confirmed death and time;
So when your time comes
And you feel in your bones
That the body is over
Where will you, the guest, go?

Then bring food and drink!
Glasses clink! Glance and wink
As you move to the brink
Of eternity.
Who knows what follows next?
“Afterlife” is absurd –
But then all life’s absurd –
We just know, when it’s time, that we go.

This is about as religious as I’ve found myself in the past 30 or 40 years – in other words, I waver between mild atheism (“None of this God stuff makes sense”) and militant agnosticism (“I don’t know, and neither do you.”) But at least you have a seat at the table! Enjoy the party while you can (preferably while being pleasant to others).

Originally published in Snakeskin No. 232 (or #232).

Poem: “Zombie Apocalypse”

Zombie Apocalypse –
humans have always had
end-times fear: Ragnarok,
Judgement Day, World War III,
comet strike, Y2K,
supervolcano – well,
you get my drift.

Zombie Apocalypse –
there’s a pandemic and
AI has run amuck –
this is no practice round,
this is for real!

Zombie Apocalypse –
head for a tropic isle,
live on fish, coconuts –
solar will last a few
years, then corrode.

Zombie Apocalypse –
walls can be built without
concrete or plastering,
fight infestations of
zombies and dogs.

As the world splits in two
all the Enhanced are gone,
gone to the Cloud and space;
only the Left Behind
scrabble, deteriorate,
left in the dirt and ash,
left on the Earth.

I, the last poet am
here on Earth’s farthest beach,
toweled, not panicking,
waiting for Branson and
Musk in their ships.

Yes, humans love the threat of the end of the world, the collapse of civilisation, all apocalyptic disasters. We don’t want the disasters to be inflicted on us… but we love thinking about them. Perhaps it’s a way of thinking about our own mortality, without actually thinking that it is we who will die one day.

The Zombie Apocalypse is wonderful because it is both a complete fantasy (as in the photo) and an image for the kind of catastrophic real-world disaster that an out-of-control plague can inflict–a medieval Black Death killing a third of the population… an early 20th century Spanish Flu infecting a third of the world’s population (but “only” killing maybe 50 million)… or, of course, a coronavirus leaping out of a food market in Wuhan and spreading around the world before anyone can get a proper handle on it. Death is real. Around the world, 150,000 people die every day. What can you do but work to minimize death–and laugh at it?

And then there’s the fantasy of being one of the lucky few survivors, faced with the difficulties of a post-apocalyptic world, a post-nuclear Wasteland, a flooded Waterworld, a Biblical Left Behind, reminiscent of Nevil Shute’s On The Beach, John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (No Blade Of Grass in the US), even Ursula Le Guin’s post-alien-invasion City of Illusions. Carrying a towel like Ford Prefect to hitchhike through the galaxy, away from doomed Earth. Dramatically, heroically, surviving the destruction of the world as we know it. As though you can dramatically, heroically, survive the time-driven destruction of your body…

The poem itself (yet another one published in Bewildering Stories) is unrhymed, but written in a form inspired by double dactyls. Technically double dactyls are eight-line poems with a few additional requirements–the form was created by Anthony Hecht, Paul Pascal and Naomi Pascal in 1951, and popularized by Hecht’s and John Hollander’s collection Jiggery Pokery… the name of the book being a double dactyl, naturally. So this poem is only “inspired by” double dactyls. But, as with limericks, the bouncy rhythm adds to a mood of flippancy, frivolity, which is always suitable (in my mind) when discussing existential catastrophe. I tip my hat to Country Joe and the Fish for the I Feel Like I’m Fixin To Die Rag, and to all political cartoonists everywhere.

Life is short; enjoy each day.