Tag: death

Poems You Might Have Missed: The Memories of Fish by James Tate

Image Credit: Paul Hermans, commons.wikimedia.org
Image Credit: Paul Hermans, commons.wikimedia.org

The absurdly imaginative and surrealist poet James Tate finished living yesterday at the age of 71. Tate, one of my favorite poets, stocked his poems with fantastic concrete imagery and amusing phrasing. He built strange worlds in his poems, but the genesis of his strangeness was generally rooted in everyday reality, except for instance, when characters like aliens ambled delightfully into his work (see his poem “The Cowboy“).

Tate’s poems are tiny stories, full of characters, conflict, and heavy doses of dialogue that draw you in so quickly you forget you’re reading a poem. His poems often end abruptly, leaving the dust of a whirlwind in your head and a strangeness settling all about you. Reading his poems is like feeling uncomfortable and unnerved in your own home. You want to simultaneously escape and remain. This is the sort of opposition that has and will continue to distinguish Tate’s work–humor and tragedy, light and darkness, imagination and reality–all blended together in what one publisher called “surprising pleasures”.

While it’s difficult to select only one Tate poem, I enjoy “The Memories of Fish” because it demonstrates a wonderful blend of tragedy and comedy so often evident in his poems. I also enjoy the poem’s enjambment and hidden technical aspects, such as its use of sonic elements (alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, etc.). They’re subtle; they don’t jolt you out of the poem, yet they’re still doing a great deal of work to pace the poem and its reader.

The Memories of Fish

Stanley took a day off from the office
and spent the whole day talking to fish in
his aquarium. To the little catfish scuttling
along the bottom he said, “Vacuum that scum,
boy. Suck it up. That’s your job.” The skinny
pencil fish swam by and he said, “Scribble,
scribble, scribble. Write me a novel, needle-
nose.” The angel executed a particularly
masterful left turn and Stanley said, “You’re
no angel, but you sure can drive.” Then he broke
for lunch and made himself a tuna fish sandwich,
the irony of which did not escape him. Oh no,
he wallowed in it, savoring every bite. Then
he returned to his chair in front of the aquarium.
A swarm of tiny neons amused him. “What do you
think this is, Times Square!” he shouted. And
so it went long into the night. The next morning
Stanley was horribly embarrassed by his behavior
and he apologized to the fish several times,
but they never really forgave him. He had mocked
their very fishiness, and for this there can be
no forgiveness.

– from Return to the City of White Donkeys by James Tate, published by Ecco Press, 2005.

Poems You Might Have Missed: The Big Heart by Anne Sexton

Image Credit: Grand Canyon National Park

There I was, a capricious sixteen-year-old boy, bent intently over my desk, reading line after line of Anne Sexton’s poetry. I had little in common with this poet, yet her mostly autobiographical poems still spoke deeply to me.

Even now as I return to her work as an adult, I’m startled and enchanted by how openly she probed her own tempestuous interior life. Critics often cornered Anne Sexton’s poetry as merely confessional, but others later defended the artistry with which she expressed her autobiographical turmoil. At the very least we can say that her work contained more honesty than artifice, which is not to say she lacked technical skills of an accomplished poet. Both the number of awards she garnered and the popularity of her work attest to her abilities.

“The Big Heart” captures both sides of this critical discussion. From the start we see an incredibly transparent persona offering us a litany of those she is thankful for, actual names of actual people she esteemed for their willingness to give whatever it is she needed. But we also see wonderful imagery (the sea’s fingers on the shore), several similes (doubt as hollow as the Grand Canyon), and biblical allusions (the metaphorical staff, the slain ram). These references to God should not surprise us–the poem was written not long before her suicide, and many of the poems she wrote during this time demonstrate a violence (death), but also a spiritual seeking (the afterlife). Note the final lines, in which love arrives, but with fury in a monstrous heart.

The Big Heart
Too many things are occurring for even a big heart to hold
. – from an essay by William Butler Yeats

Big heart,
wide as a watermelon,
but wise as birth,
there is so much abundance
in the people I have:
Max, Lois, Joe, Louise,
Joan, Marie, Dawn,
Arlene, Father Dunne,
and all in their short lives
give to me repeatedly,
in the way the sea
places its many fingers on the shore,
again and again
and they know me,
they help me unravel,
they listen with ears made of conch shells,
they speak back with the wine of the best region.
They are my staff.
They comfort me.

They hear how
the artery of my soul has been severed
and soul is spurting out upon them,
bleeding on them,
messing up their clothes, dirtying their shoes.
And God is filling me,
though there are times of doubt
as hollow as the Grand Canyon,
still God is filling me.
He is giving me the thoughts of dogs,
the spider in its intricate web,
the sun
in all its amazement,
and a slain ram
that is the glory,
the mystery of great cost,
and my heart,
which is very big,
I promise it is very large,
a monster of sorts,
takes it all in–
all in comes the fury of love.

– from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton by Anne Sexton, published by Mariner Books, 1999.

When Your Father Dies: In Which Sense Is So Far Away

Your father, still a young man, talks to you. His mouth moves plainly. Words float slowly from his lips; their sounds softly enter your ears, but they do not make any sense to you. It’s liver cancer. Terminal. Both bodily and psychologically, it’s going to be some hellish exit.

Still, he is remarkably calm. Death is sticking his fiendish fingertips in his liver, and yet he is unnervingly serene as he describes his options.

I’m going to fight it, he says. See how far I can go.

Good, you reply, staring a thousand yards away at nothing. You’re thinking, or trying to. Sense is so far away. Good, you say again.

Three swift months later, his demise surprises you. It is expected, yet somehow implausible. What happened? Inevitable and relentless progression of cancerous cells. How? Quickly.

Oh yes, it is progress, as inelegant as ever, destroying as it creates. Here is death for the man who has an answer to every inquiry of your childhood and every indiscretion of your teenage youth, however tame it seemed to you.

Here is death, silent and cold. Death is it.

It is undeniably hard; it is stunning in its lack of edge, its blur, its wobble; it is something you cannot quite recall now, his final words to you, the light growing dim in his eyes. His face will not float back to you, but if you could see its earnest hunger for a little more, it would only demonstrate that his mouth could not move or mumble, as was often his way; it could not utter its final utterance.

If you could see his sunken cheeks, the almost hollowed out sockets of his eyes, his face would demonstrate a lack of radiance evident even in those destroyed beings that somehow go on living. It could not, would not, illuminate the dark finale of life.

Yet it is his deep sleep, his final rest, that finally affords you rest of your own, however false it proves to be. It is three months of weariness diminished in a day, replaced with something else entirely. It is a substitute, a grief that literally destroys your gut for an entire year. It emaciates you and condemns you to never be too far from the refuge of a restroom where you can vomit just enough for a brief reprieve. It is where you can wash your face in an attempt to cleanse or drown—either will do. It is where you will remain for months, maybe years, wading in the waters of grief.

Death is an answer, so do not inquire.

It is ignorance, attempting to ignore it, a kind of false management that gets you where you need to go for some time. It is “magical thinking,” according to the writer Joan Didion, a pleasant euphemism for a sort of momentary insanity, but also a testament of imagination intermingling with the aching throb of the human heart.

Perhaps it should be deemed majestic thinking, the way it transforms the humble reality of an object into something superb. It is noticing that your grocery market keeps its peanut butter across the aisle from its bread. It is that sensible coincidence that allows the aroma of burnt toast and peanut butter to fill your nose, and all of a sudden, it is morning, and your father is no longer deceased, but eating his favorite breakfast of burnt toast smothered in peanut butter while reading the newspaper at the kitchen table. He is sipping his black coffee from his black mug, but you are not there. Yet you will see him later because it is as real as the grocery cart you’re handling, your knuckles gripping tight and holding on as your mind careens between the real and unreal. Your brain, that callous beast of habit and circuitry, that beautiful mass of matter, is working wonders, yet it still won’t let you see his face with any exactitude, even though he is warm and living, an intangible being in a tangible body that is sitting in your kitchen one final time.

It is excusable, your imagination, your magical and majestic thinking. It is nothing if not a means to let you survive. Sanity is overrated when sense is so far away and his death so unreal.

And your own death, too, suddenly so real, so close, only a few decades away and now destroying your concept of time. Whatever it is, this death, it is indistinct, hard to hold, yet it is being held all the time within your hands, which with age start to resemble his—slow, callused, steadfast. It’s the finest line that lingers between breath and death, its limits and lines contained within a couple of letters.

Death is an answer, so do not inquire.

An answer, an abstraction, hard to pin to the paper, yet with you. Its absence is impossible, even years later. It is hard to understand, for yourself and for others. It is quiet, but there, where it will stay, much closer than any sense you seek.


For another personal meditation on death, see Emma Kempsell’s The Waves on the Sea from thisrecording.com.