Thursday, December 22, 2011

Writing about death will kill you

A  dubious perks of being an older poet  is that you are allowed, it seems, with each year you add to write about death regardless of subject matter or choice of images. Death is everywhere, the world is fraught with things that are symbols for the lack of pulse or heartbeat, the bowel of cereal you just poured milk in stares back at you with big, sad eyes, as if to say farewell as you lift the spoon of Wheat Chex to you lips. 

Always death, that subject and intangible menace in the deeper shadows of the alleys, in the cracks between the shelves of the used book stores, seeping blackness dribbling in from old hotel hallways under grey doors, death, ever present, a fact that is a bider of time, a patient representative of perhaps an even vaster gasp of the Unknown, death is always there in the things and the places and within the people one encounters. It becomes a habit of mind, I suppose, to look into the rubble of architectural ruins or the long pauses between moves in a chess game between two old men and to visualize the void that awaits them and finally ourselves, and there is something to be said in the meditation on the subject of approaching the end of the line where one's ticket is punched , once and for all;indeed, I sometimes regard the day to day activities as performances of a sort, scenarios acted out, improvised upon, and I am the critic, assessing how well I met the standards of appropriate response to the world or getting keen on far I fell short.
The thought that my life would be no more,that there would no more matinees or encores leaves one breathless and in a vague panic if I park my ride in that neighborhood too long. 

Lucky for me that I push on, get on with the day, write a poem about those feelings that pushes death , that shadowy enigma, that uncompromising lack, to the margins and emphasize the life that is with me. Tragedies are constant and we consider their impact, we measure the loss, but we take stock of what we have still and stop watching the clock. For the moment, for this day, we stop fearing death, we learn to live with it, we move on and call a friend, we help a neighbor, we excel at our jobs, we create meaning in the life that still engages our senses. We find joy. 

Not that we ignore death, of course; I am leery of poems, though, that too quickly shifst the focus of their lines from what begins as one of a limitless prose description of a an urban locale into a bit of self-estimation that evaluates the present life against an imagined calendar that is quickly running out of pages.Alan Williamson's poem "No.1 Piazetta Calamandrei", wants something to be delivered to him with a bang, a crash of cymbals, an orchestral fanfare; his details too readily ooze the impending arrival of his private end of days. 


Does being you still mean walking your own mind
as if it were a tightrope? With anger rising
against those nearest you, as if they were depriving you
of some dearest hope?
What is the thing, the flaming-up or darkening,
that brings you peace?
No answers. But why does a sudden joy
go through me, at this thinning of the veil
between me then and now?
For a moment I no longer fear the death
that waits for me,
as if it were no more than the drawing of a just sum.
Pausing, as if to enter,
my hand on the great knob of the street door. ... 

 

This too readily finds dread in the    everyday things around him,  which would have been a good way to go had he not chosen to lard up the proceedings with so much thinking. The deliberation is too deliberate; Carl Sandburg or Emily Dickinson this is not, two poets who recognize Death, with a capital D, as a the huge bag of nothing ness it was. Williamson's poem is  bothersome because it dredges up so much worry and reflection triggered by trivial details, nicely designed and symmetrically pleasing as they might be to the eye; poetry , among other facets, concerns itself with finding significant things, images, notions in unexpected places in unexpected moments, but Williamson's writing finds too articulate; the dualism of a young man compared against his older self  laces whatever irony that might be had into a supremely literary echo chamber and cheats the subject out of the element of surprise.
The poem's  tone that reads as if it has been practiced, that is too say, rehearsed. I realize the poem is Williamson composing his thoughts about his own death and that he is attempting here to establish a believable objective correlative, providing a backdrop of physical things in the material world to enhance a poem about a moment in his interior life, but I think this fails because the poem the first person narration, all the references to self, put this in the league of whining complaints about encroaching infirmity. Any one can complain about their fading light, anyone can express regrets festooned with first person pronouns--a good poet, though,should have the craft,the instinct, the ear to get that across by removing themselves from the discussion almost entirely, to not pad what is already poetic.