"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Stopping For Death

" . . . there are some of whom there is no memory,
who have no memorial, who have perished as though they had not existed,
as though they had not been born . . . " ~ Ecclesiasticus 44:9
20th Century Potter's Field
Sunnyside Cemetery ~ Caney, Kansas

This little person is unknown to me,
but I wanted to learn more about the inscription,
"usdi a da wehi" or "Little Whirlwind."


All Hallows Eve, All Saints, All Souls. With the Halloween Season in full swing, it seems timely that we stop and think of death for a few moments. But, as Jesse Bering so accurately observes, how can we, really? Perhaps the best way has always been in allegory, parable, or metaphor.
Why so many of us think our minds continue on after we die: Consider the rather startling fact that you will never know you have died. You may feel yourself slipping away, but it isn’t as though there will be a “you” around who is capable of ascertaining that, once all is said and done, it has actually happened. Just to remind you, you need a working cerebral cortex to harbor propositional knowledge of any sort, including the fact that you’ve died—and once you’ve died your brain is about as phenomenally generative as a head of lettuce. In a 2007 article published in the journal Synthese, University of Arizona philosopher Shaun Nichols puts it this way: “When I try to imagine my own non-existence I have to imagine that I perceive or know about my non-existence. No wonder there’s an obstacle!”

from "Never Say Die: Why We Can't Imagine Death"
by Jesse Bering
in Scientific American, October 2008

The following poets have all settled on a transportation motif.

1. First, of course, is Emily Dickinson. For Dickinson, Death is a gentleman, driving a carriage, which holds just the two of them - and Immortality, though it's not clear what form Immortality takes:

Because I could not stop for Death -
He kindly stopped for me -
The Carriage held but just Ourselves -
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

A little joke at the poet's expense:
Cartoon by Trashlands

2. Next is Harold Witt, who has composed a contemporary sonnet, echoing Dickinson's poem, but with a few shifts in the narrative. For Witt, Death is a an aging woman, a fading movie star with a "ghoulish grin," yet she seems every bit as polite -- "Darling . . . I've always felt that someday we would meet" -- as Dickinson's driver.

In Witt's poem, Death does not do her own driving but has a "skeletal driver," and her Rolls Royce keeps a faster pace than Dickinson's "Carriage" driver. When they turn up a cypress - lined driveway toward Death's mansion, we sense Eternity in the distance, as does Dickinsons's narrator, when she sees the "House" -- with "Roof" and "Cornice."

Sunset Boulevard
I wonder if death will come like a faded star
wrapped in fur and heavily made up,
her skeletal driver silent by the car.
"Darling, get in, we just thought we'd stop -- "
she'll say as he is opening the door
and with a ghoulish grin she pats the seat --
Even though we haven't met before
I've always felt that someday we would meet."
And then I'll hear the Rolls Royce softly purr,
whizzing past off ramps, and watch her bony hand
rolling with rings, a cigarette in a holder,
as she whispers of the films that she's been in,
and up the cypress driveway toward her mansion
I'll go cold against her colder shoulder.

Halloween Hearse

3. X.J. Kennedy puts Time behind the wheel, rather than Death and renders the reader powerless to halt the vehicle. The direction of the journey seems similar -- eternity, straight ahead -- but the destination, instead of a mansion, is an unceremonious abandonment along the roadside. Even Everyman is allowed to take Good Deeds to the grave with him, but Witt suggests otherwise:

For when time takes you out for a spin in his car
You'll be hard-pressed to stop him from going too far
And be left by the roadside, for all your good deeds . . .

from "In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus One Day"
[see Comments Section below for full poem]

Next Fortnightly Post
Saturday, November 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

1 comment:

  1. In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus One Day, by X. J. Kennedy

    In a prominent bar in Secaucus one day
    Rose a lady in skunk with a topheavy sway,
    Raised a knobby red finger–all turned from their beer–
    While with eyes bright as snowcrust she sang high and clear:

    ‘Now who of you'd think from an eyeload of me
    That I once was a lady as proud as could be?
    Oh I'd never sit down by a tumbledown drunk
    If it wasn't, my dears, for the high cost of junk.

    ‘All the gents used to swear that the white of my calf
    Beat the down of the swan by a length and a half.
    In the kerchief of linen I caught to my nose
    Ah, there never fell snot, but a little gold rose.

    ‘I had seven gold teeth and a toothpick of gold,
    My Virginia cheroot was a leaf of it rolled
    And I'd light it each time with a thousand in cash–
    Why the bums used to fight if I flicked them an ash.

    ‘Once the toast of the Biltmore, the belle of the Taft,
    I would drink bottle beer at the Drake, never draught,
    And dine at the Astor on Salisbury steak
    With a clean tablecloth for each bite I did take.

    ‘In a car like the Roxy I'd roll to the track,
    A steel-guitar trio, a bar in the back,
    And the wheels made no noise, they turned ever so fast,
    Still it took you ten minutes to see me go past.

    ‘When the horses bowed down to me that I might choose,
    I bet on them all, for I hated to lose.
    Now I'm saddled each night for my butter and eggs
    And the broken threads race down the backs of my legs.

    ‘Let you hold in mind, girls, that your beauty must pass
    Like a lovely white clover that rusts with its grass.
    Keep your bottoms off barstools and marry you young
    Or be left–an old barrel with many a bung.

    ‘For when time takes you out for a spin in his car
    You'll be hard-pressed to stop him from going too far
    And be left by the roadside, for all your good deeds,
    Two toadstools for tits and a face full of weeds.'

    All the house raised a cheer, but the man at the bar
    Made a phone call and up pulled a red patrol car
    And she blew us a kiss as they copped her away
    From that prominent bar in Secaucus, N.J.