Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Thanatopsis: Meditation on Death

Written as a response to the William Cullen Bryant poem of the same name and first published in The Rambler in 2014

When you see it, you will know
Death is not the feeling,
That ailing breath that comes to you
Saltily, in tar-black hours,
Staining pillow, sheets, eyes and heart,
Gulping you like a fish,
Rocking you like a bobbing toy,
Paralysing your limbs into fossils.
What is death but the last word?
It is this life, chronic, terminal disease
That it is, which grows and devours
Cancerously, plundering weeks, days, hours,
Till the hoard is spent.
It is the certainty of dissolution,
Slouching towards incontinence, that skewers
The heart like barbed ice. Dying an afterthought,
Pissing life away the briefest eternity.
Extinction is not too grand a word,
Mammoth to my dodo.

But, equally fierce in truth:
Your mother felt it, the same vile hourglass,
Before swan-like she glided down the aisle.
Your father felt it, as he sat up a while
Waiting to hold new breath in his hands.
Soldiers, lovers have felt it, dancing round the funeral pyre.
We cannot sigh – in realization it is a choir
Flooding a cathedral, indistinct vowels praising
Something unknowable. Spirits, deities good as dust.
It matters little; when on the frozen beach
Which counts our seconds, the sun dies at last
And the moon crumbles, it is left to each
The will to do that ancient ritual,
The one action fitting of the word ‘holy’:
You stretch out a hand,
Frost-blue, impermanent, scarred by other hands,
And enact the work of tribes, parties, faiths and bands,
By seizing some meagre twig, some driftwood, some bark, some kindling,
By renouncing fate both fortuitous and dire,
By reverently invoking your individual fire. 

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