Tag Archives: death

Sonnet: “Unanswered”

The Afterlife – some Happy Hunting Ground?
Or Jesus, virgins, merging flesh and breath?
Or god of your own world, white-robed and crowned?
Or ghost? Rebirth? Just, please, no final death!

The sparrow through the Saxon hall at night –
Brief light and warmth, then cold obscurity.
Is this our life? But yet the bird in flight
lived in the dark, both pre and post. Do we?

Frogs, living in a buried water tank,
spend all their time in darkness. Then the lid
is lifted and sun shines into the dank –
lid down, light gone… but they live on, though hid.

We work and play throughout our brief day’s sun –
Day raises many questions – night, just one.

This sonnet was published in Snakeskin No. 265, edited by George Simmers. I write both religious and irreligious poetry as the muse suggests, but my own personal views are Fundamentalist Agnostic: “Nescio et tu quoque”, “I don’t know and neither do you.” The sparrow reference is to a passage in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People which usually seems to resonate well.

Technically the sonnet is Shakespearean: iambic pentameter rhyming ABAB CECD EFEF GG. The three quatrains are each self-contained, but leading to the resolution (or lack of resolution) in the couplet. The last line is the strongest, which is always satisfying.

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Sonnet: “Beat This Level”

Forget that crap about some God or Devil –
you’re on your own against the Universe;
but till you’re free of our Stage One’s perverse
orientation, you won’t beat this level.
The Heaven idea is fraudulent, and worse:
Father McKenzie wields a deadly shovel.
Stage Two’s extended life – hard, but don’t snivel.
Stage Three: genetic change, youthful reverse.

You must want Life – must fight Death all the way,
ignoring social norms, pressure from peers;
such life will need a gamer’s vigilance.
Your other futures are: ashes, or clay.
And if help’s late, as you slide down the years,
cryonics is your waiting ambulance.

This sonnet, written over 20 years after the previous “Death Will Be Harder Now”, was first published as a pair to it in Ambit No. 190, October 2007. (Also like the earlier sonnet, it was reprinted in Bewildering Stories, edited by Don Webb.)

The theme is our age-long human dream of avoiding death, including that celebrated by Father McKenzie, “wiping the dirt from his hands as he steps from the grave.” (No one was saved.) For the first time in history we can see the realistic prospect of indefinite lifespans coming closer, if we can just live long enough for genetic modification to give us not only better hair and wrinkle-free skin, but actual rejuvenation. If you die before that happens, cryonic suspension is your ambulance to the future… you may not survive the ride, but you’ll have a better chance of a fresh lease of life than if you let them cremate you or pass you through the bodies of worms.

Technically the sonnet is unconventional, reversing the rhymes in the second quartet rather than echoing them, so that the poem reads ABBABAAB CDECDE. I don’t think that’s a problem; probably the bigger sin was splitting noun from adjective in lines 3 and 4, breaking the rhythm of the pentameters, which the other lines hold comfortably.

 

Sonnet: “And Then You Die”

And then you die. So what have you achieved?
Your house, your place of work, both turn to dust.
You’re honoured? But who’s on a marble bust
none knows or cares, or if the honour’s thieved.
You cheated? Centuries later, none’s aggrieved.
You fought for Freedom? But in history’s dust
no war is seen as necessary or just.
You were a saint? None cares what you believed.
Why all this striving, more than to survive?
Millennia hence a random rubbish heap
will be more studied than your claimed success.
So find a sunny sea, be calm, alive,
swim, then float on your back and fall asleep.
Life can be no more perfect; death no less.

This sonnet was published in Snakeskin a couple of weeks ago. I was very happy with its formal Petrarchan rhyme scheme, until I suddenly noticed, reading it for the umpteenth time, that I had used the word “dust” twice in the rhymes. Given the enormous number of alternatives I could have chosen from, I’m a little embarrassed. All I can say is, the word just seemed so natural, in both places…

But, in the spirit of the poem, so what? The swimming is lovely today!

New Poem: “Buried in the Garden”

I have a poem published in May’s Snakeskin which (shock, horror!) is not formal.

Snakeskin logo

Buried in the Garden

Now I lie dead, buried in the garden,
And the plants take over.
Two hibiscus bushes grow from my eyes,
Oleander from my nose,
A sapodilla will fruit from my mouth,
Casuarinas grow to sigh from my ears.
From my chest a love vine straggles out
And black crabs live in the cavities of my lungs.
A chicken boa curls around and hunts up and down
And from my private parts grows
That least private of plants, a coconut palm.
From my feet termites are building tunnels out around the world.
So is my body divided, reused, and the birds take hair for their nests
And the calcium of bones and teeth for their eggs
And the body, the body is gone.
And what am I, but a body? What would remain in your sieve if you sift my remains?
Only some thoughts, others’ memories of some thoughts,
Blown away on the wind when the rememberers themselves are gone.

At a stretch, you could claim it has elements of formality. It has a structured sequence of appropriate tropical plants and other creatures growing from body parts – the most visually arresting from the eyes, the most highly scented from the nose, and so on. It has a volta, a turn in the argument from the description of transformation as positive, to the dismissal of that process as being mere erasure.

But are those things enough to make the whole piece word-for-word memorable? Because that is my test of poetry. And I think the answer is no. So no, it is not real poetry. There may be one or two memorable phrases, but that’s not enough. The underlying concept may be memorable, the images may be memorable; still not enough. Only if the entire piece is easy to recite because of the actual expression of the words, I argue, can it be called poetry.

Should you then put your time into transforming the images into formal verse, creating perhaps a Shakespearean sonnet, iambic pentameter and all?

Buried in the Garden (Take 2)

In garden buried, I sprout from my eyes
Hibiscus; oleander from my nose;
From mouth, a sapodilla; a pine sighs
From out my ear; from chest a love vine grows;
Black crabs in lungs, small boa in my guts;
From feet, ants tunnel out around the world;
My privates sprout a palm with coconuts.
Birds peck my bones, my teeth, hair that once curled,
For calcium for eggs and for a nest…
Sift my remains: what remains in your sieve?
Of my whole body I’ve been dispossessed,
Only the memory of some thoughts still live
Within the thoughts of others’ memories;
When those rememberers go, all traces cease.

So we come back to the old questions of poetry: is the expression itself richer or poorer for having been put into verse? And is the formal verse expression (whether richer or poorer) more memorable than the non-formal expression? What do you think?

I wonder if Snakeskin editor George Simmers has an opinion.