I was just going to post a vignette for you to read. I’m polishing it up to get it ready to submit for publication. I think it’s about ready to go. It’s got a clean shirt on, and a good hat to keep the rain of its little face. It’s awfully small – only two pages – to go out alone in the bold and verbose world, but I’ve done my best by it. All the rewriting set me to ruminating a bit, along these lines:
On a recent morning, drinking my coffee and listening to the critical whispers of my carpets, I read a very nice – meaning thoughtful and well-crafted – article in the LA Times about death. Rather, about a man who will soon see the end of his life, and whose lifelong career in thantology and suicide prevention has made him a unique subject for consideration in the matter of impending death.
I should clarify that if the perspective of this article is to be entertained, it is not this man who will see the end of his life. One’s death is experienced by others.
Here’s an excerpt from Waiting for death, alone and unafraid, Los Angeles Times:
“In death, things become mere things — the statue of Venus in the backyard, the gyotaku print in the kitchen, the Melville-inspired shadow boxes — no longer animated by memory, the story of their provenance. It is as if their atoms loosen and dissipate.
The meaning of death is loss and sadness and inevitability. On the wall above the bed, he has hung a print by Breughel that covers a crack in the plaster. Here an army of skeletons wages war against humanity, and compared to the Chagall overhead, it’s a bleak and macabre picture of the final hour that without angels or signs of salvation is unremittingly godless.”
Here’s a paradox: if death is experienced by others, and things become mere things, how is it that the things – mementos, memories – which are the legacy of our loved ones become so abjectly, enormously dear? I think the writer of that article has it backwards. Things are things until they’re all we have left. I have things that came to me from hands still warm and hands now beyond cold, and I have enough compassion for myself and those who gave them to me to know better than to call them mere.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not complete this last one but I give myself to it.”
What is such a widening circle? To me, it is a consciousness of compassion, and that consciousness is the function of poetry; in other words, the exploration of authentic human experience. We are all in this together.
There is a subset of authentic and universal human experience which we can call true for everyone, and which really make our emotions ring. These are the primary colors of our daily lives, the things which we carry everywhere, everyday, and which define us. They are love stripped of romance, fear free of titillation, and death devoid of pride. Also, the small moments and rare intangible things which offer consolation.
The problem for a poet who sits down with a notebook and a pen and hopes to dig in to truth is that these things are just so intangible. But then, intangible things are the poet’s brush and paint. We have to live with that. We have to stare death in the face because it is in the great commonality, and keep it right here – right here – in front of our dusty spectacles. And not blink. See the metaphor …. be the metaphor.
Does it help to be a little crazy?
Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. Some of the spies are detached observers, such are glass surfaces and still pools; others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart; others again (running water, storms) are hysterical to the point of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him and grotesquely misinterpret his actions. He must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things. The very air he exhales is indexed and filed away. [Nabokov, Signs and Symbols
There is a line in the book A Separate Reality by Carlos Casteneda which has stuck with me since I read the book in 1986, though I’m not going to spend a chunk of my finitude trying to find it and be exact: “I have my aly, the little smoke has shown me my death with great clarity.” And The Chink from Robbins’ Cowgirls says “Ha ha ho ho and hee hee.” I say it’s a mystery.
OK, maybe I’m getting a little carried away. My point is that poetry is for saying the things that are unsayable, for naming the truth the dog would tell you if he could talk. The poet William Stafford wrote this about that:
Your good dogs, some things that they hear
they don’t really want you to know —
it’s too grim or ethereal.
And sometimes when they look in the fire
they see time going on and someone alone,
but they don’t say anything.
Mark Twain wrote, “The dreamer’s valuation of a thing lost–not another man’s–is the only standard to measure it by, and his grief for it makes it large and great and fine, and is worthy of our reverence in all cases.” And I say Amen, and if anything depends on red wheel barrows and white chickens, then everything depends on how my grandfather watered his tomatoes, how grandma smoothed a quilt on the bed.
We are attending a mystery, a continuous and ineffable transubstantiation of Being, no less than the passage of galaxies through needles’ eyes, no greater than an hour pulling weeds in the front yard by the gate. Perhaps exactly the same size as a dog’s collar or a homemade pie. And how can we sit down and try to write it? Because of something John Gardner said, “The organized and intelligent fictional dream that will eventually fill the reader’s mind begins as a largely mysterious dream in the writer’s mind.”
That is compassion, and that’s the job of the poet, isn’t it? We aim to write something beyond us, something that can’t be contained by the margins of the page. We fail. Words fail. We keep writing. And in the end, what remains is a final kindness. Which brings me to the end of my post.
Here’s that little story for you.