Life Goes On

It’s been a rough few weeks since Liam died. A few other difficult things have happened which I probably haven’t dealt with as well as I usually would–I’ve been a bit brittle.

Tomorrow though, the family is heading to Aruba for our annual week’s vacation. We’re staying in a glorious hotel with its own private island and a swim-up bar. I feel sure Liam would approve.

A few things to note of interest. Firstly, the wonderful Annie Finch has agreed to be the next featured poet for the Barefoot Muse. I’m very excited about that and am taking Calendars to Aruba with me to brush up on her excellent poetry.

Secondly, if you want to catch me reading in September, you have oodles of opportunities:

  • Wednesday September 12th: Barron Arts Center, Woodbridge, NJ. Starts at 8 p.m.
  • Saturday September 15th: Churchill’s, Pottstown, PA. Starts at 7 p.m.
  • Saturday September 29th: Shooting Star Theater, Pecks Slip, NY. Starts at 4 p.m.

Finally, a new online journal has just been launched by one of my previous contributors, David Landrum. Check it out at Lucid Rhythms! (Yes, I’m in it, but I’d tell you to check it out anyway!)

Elegy for Liam (1949-2007)

It’s raining as if every student you taught has started
to cry. In this world you’ve newly departed
I see more fences, bigger holes in the road.
And I feel owed
a roguish smile or two, the trenchant question
each lecturing final semester student dreads.
I summon your ghost to the rails in Tishman:
for me it’s Dante, why did he rate suicide
such a high sin? Not him, I say, theology
the Catholic Church. And you sit back, well-pleased.
January looks bleak
without your welcome. You won’t buy me that drink
you promised. We won’t hear you speak
at graduation. Am I wrong to think—
selfishly—it would have helped to say goodbye?
But I’m going to try
to see it your way: those dying months not “fun,—
why bore everyone?

I won’t call it a sin. I want to trust
your reasons: people do what they must.
Always larger than life, you’re the reason why,
what you leave us is larger than how you chose to die.

Deep Sadness

I just found out that Liam Rector is dead. He killed himself yesterday. He put a shotgun to his head. Oh Liam.

I know I’m not supposed to blog about my Bennington teachers. I googled your suicide and halfway down the list my previous blog entry about you appeared, the one you “didn’t object to,” all enthusiasm and joy at my good fortune in having you for my first MFA teacher.

You won’t object to this one either. Sleep well my friend. It seems inconceivable that we can graduate in January without you.

In Appreciation of Our New Poet Laureate

Yesterday it was announced that Charles Simic will be the new Poet Laureate. In honor of the occasion I devote this blog entry to one of my favorite poems of his, “Eyes Fastened with Pins.”

The scenario for the poem is vintage, quirky Simic: Death is personified as a hard working family man whose job takes him away from home at unsociable hours. Where other poets might respond to an upsurge in their sense of mortality by, for example, raging against the dying of the light, Simic has chosen instead to calm fear by humanizing death, an ambitious ploy which nevertheless succeeds in engaging me as a reader and gaining my sympathy.

Roughly the first half of the poem functions to set the scene, with Death not appearing as a character in person until line 11. Then for the next eleven lines, the surreal narrative builds with Death’s burdens becoming greater and greater until we reach the climax with the repeated tugs at our Hallmark channel consciousness: “Death with not even a newspaper/ To cover his head, not even / A dime to call the one pining away.” Focus then shifts back to Death’s home where we end with the image we can all identify with—Death’s wife “Undressing slowly, sleepily/ And stretching naked / On Death’s side of the bed.”

At the risk of sounding like an apologist for concrete poetry, I’d be tempted to describe the emotional arc of the poem as being shaped like a scythe—there’s the long, slow build up the handle, followed by a trenchant swift descent which curves back toward the point of departure (Death’s home.)

In an unusual choice for a narrative poem, verbs are not just in present tense throughout, but also often continuous or passive in tone, as indicated by the string of participial phrases used as sentence fragments: “Ironing Death’s laundry”, “Setting Death’s supper table.” The effect of this is to make Death seem less threatening: “looking for someone with a bad cough” is much less purposeful than if Death actively looked for that someone.

The voice of the poem is another interesting choice—an omniscient narrator who begins at a certain distance from his characters, but slowly and gently, so as not to frighten us, brings us closer in to Death until at the climax of the poem “Long windy night ahead” perhaps we feel ourselves there with Death, lost in the rain-soaked street. Instantly, Simic pulls back away (Who, after all, wants to identify with Death that closely?) and we return to referring to Death in the third person: “Not even a newspaper to cover his head.”

The personification of Death is a common trope in poetry. I am immediately reminded of Emily Dickinson’s majestic Death figure in “Because I could not stop for Death” and John Donne chastising Death in “Death be not proud, though some have called thee.” Death is of course one of the great subjects of poetry, and poems that personify Death often unfold like arguments, persuading our logic that our fear of mortality is in error. Simic’s poem, on the other hand, works not with our logic but our emotions. How dreadful can Death be, after all, if he works thankless hours and his wife misses him? That is the genius of our new Poet Laureate.