Tag Archives: death

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.

Sonnet: “Body Modding”

It starts with teeth, for even the healthiest:
Fillings put in, and “extra” teeth pulled out
Or realigned, the whole jaw moved about,
New faces for the kids of the wealthiest.
Tonsils, appendix, out. The stealthiest
Inject, use pills, every fluid reroute
With tourniquets, with tampons, condoms… flout
Flow, through to adult nappies. Atheist
As Science makes us with creative powers,
We add pumps, implants, radio, wires, chips,
Casually as tattoos, replacement hips;
Graft patchwork skin from humans, pigs, plants, flowers,
Joined in flamboyant Frankensteinish suture,
Racing against decay to cyborg future.

Like most of my sonnets, this was first published in Snakeskin. And like most of my sonnets, it has an existential theme. Ever since I was in high school (Stowe, a traditional British “public school” i.e. private school) and lost my belief in that Anglican school’s religion, I’ve been writing poetry about life and death. It’s a fascinating subject for those who are able to accept that death is inescapable except in religious fantasies, and science fiction, and the dreams of scientists out on the furthest limbs. Death may have proved universal so far, but so have the stories of the search for immortality in all the world’s cultures. Striving against death is part of what makes us human. And success will involve becoming something other than the humans that we are today.

 

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.