Thomas Fink: The thanatologist Deborah Golden Alecson is the author of Complicated Grief: A Collection of Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2014), We Are So Lightly Here: A Story About Conscious Dying (IntoPrint, Second Edition, 2014), Lost Lullaby (IntoPrint, Second Edition, 2014) and Alternative Treatments for Children Within the Autistic Spectrum (Keats Publishing, 1999). In 1997, Lost Lullaby was the recipient of the Washington Irving Book Award in nonfiction from the Westchester Library Association. Among the countless poems that concern death and dying, I am going to pose questions to Deborah about a handful. As I do so, I’ll sometimes develop brief, tentative, provisional readings to set some context, though, undoubtedly, she will locate new ones.
In Holy Sonnet 10, the marvelous 17th century Metaphysical John Donne represents death through personification:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
Death, a “tough guy,” is said to have a big ego, but there are stronger forces, and death must be assisted by and hence is deemed “a slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell….” The speaker posits the alleged certainty of Christian salvation in a heavenly afterlife as more than compensation for physical death—that is, as an undoing of it:
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
What you do see as advantages and/or disadvantages of this dramatic presentation of Donne’s view of death for various kinds of readers? I’m thinking of those who are close to dying and know it, those who are intimate with terminally ill people, hospice workers and those in crucial proximity to the dying and their intimates, and administrators who make policy that affects the process of dying and of witnessing it?
Deborah Golden Alecson: Donne was a minister whose understanding of death as something that is evil and must be challenged and conquered, is not unlike today’s understanding. Donne and our Northern American prominent culture are based in the Abrahamic tradition that views death and our mortal status as punishment bestowed upon us by God for our sins committed in the Garden of Eden. This is in sharp contrast to indigenous people who do not perceive death as punishment but as part of the cycle of life. What is in great contrast between the 16th and 17th centuries and ours is that then people died of illnesses that can now be cured or at least treated for a period of time. More importantly, death during Donne’s time was a religious, familial, personal, and communal event. A person usually died of a disease process or fatal accident and that was that. During our time, death is a medical event but it can be prolonged and postponed.
The “advantage” of Donne’s sonnet is that in a death-phobic culture such as ours, he offers a perspective that puts death in its place as subservient to the will of man. This speaks volumes to the American mentality of fierce and misguided individualism. The entire medical industrial complex is based on making death subservient to the will of man. The disadvantage is that such a take on death is immature and ultimately brings on more suffering because it does not prepare us for the most arduous task which is dying in a death-phobic culture.
Someone in the midst of his or her dying time in our death-phobic culture is usually hoping and praying that a cure will materialize. A dying person in our culture is more often than not in a medical setting seeking and getting treatment and NOT thinking about death at all, but thinking about how to save his or her life. And, we have the medical practitioners and family members cheering them on. Donne is speaking directly to death but in our dying time here in America we are speaking to physicians. Because the approach to dying in our culture is to prolong the dying time, the inner struggle for the one dying is not to be dying, and to be consumed by physical symptoms.
The punch line to Donne’s sonnet is: “And death shall be nor more; Death, thou shalt die.” Well, tell that to someone in an ICU anywhere in this country. Death ain’t the one who is about to die – he or she is. Death is not a romanticized adversary to duel. Death is a morphine drip that may or may not work and the descent into bodily failure coupled with human indignities. Death is this looming failure of doctors to save you and death’s inevitability is the most horrifying punch line to existence. Donne’s sonnet does not even touch this horror for those dying in a death-phobic culture. It does not speak to the absurdity of dying as a medical event instead of a natural occurrence. It is simple-minded and useless in our dying setting.
To address the last part of your question re: administrators and hospice, etc.: Donne’s sonnet is so childlike that it is best not to offer it as a comfort for those who are dying. What is better is to acknowledge the fears of the dying including what death means to them.
Dying, living and death asks something of us – what is it asking and how are we answering?
Fink: One might compare Donne’s attitude to Dylan Thomas’s bluster in his somewhat more psychological than religious claim: “And death shall have no dominion,” a title (and line) which evidently is from St. Paul. How can such an assertion comfort a person in an ICU?
The one area where I want to question an idea you’ve just articulated is your point that Donne posits “death… as subservient to the will of man,” a concept that “speaks volumes to the American mentality of fierce and misguided individualism.” Death in the poem is subservient to the Christian deity, who is said to grace humankind with the prospect of heaven, but only if people (i.e. “our best men” and women) obey the rules that will get them a permanent place in the sky resort: “Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.” I think it’s a Christian collectivism. On the other hand, you might respond that this notion of Christian salvation was invented by socially powerful men to promote an individualism that would help them control the masses. Further, someone holding this individualistic mentality might use the rhetoric and “logic” of Donne’s Holy Sonnet 10 to serve an individualistic framework.
Golden Alecson: I agree that it is a Christian collectivism and elitism. If a person follows this righteous path in abeyance to God, then he or she will be rewarded with “no death.” I also agree that Christian salvation was invented to control the masses. I withdraw my inclusion of “individualism” in this context. Thanks for pointing it out, Tom.
This speaks to your point about the best people getting into heaven. I was a hospice patient volunteer for a Catholic man dying of lung cancer. I had asked him what he thought would happen to him after he died. He said with great clarity and assurance, “I’m going to hell.” We had talked a bit before I asked him this question and what I learned was that he was a decent enough guy. He was a truck driver, had a long and stable marriage, provided for his family which included two sons who were doing fine. I pointed this all out to him in response to his assertion that he is going to hell. When I pressed him he said, “I must have done something wrong to get this cancer.” I thought, is it not hard enough to be dying of lung cancer let alone to be convinced that hell is the next stage.
Fink: That’s a tremendously sad story!
While Donne in this Holy Sonnet may want to comfort the dying and inculcate a particular Christian perspective, Emily Dickinson does not, as far as I remember, have either aim. And she lost a lot of people close to her, including young people, and she wrote many of the poems we know her for during the Civil War, which, as she was aware, had an immense number of casualties. In some of her great death poems, Dickinson seems intent on doing something outrageous: through her speaker, she pretends that she can write from the perspective of a dead person and tell living readers what it’s like to experience the process of dying.
I’m aware that the first few quatrains of her poem 280 lead some readers to believe that this is a poem about depression, but I think the poem’s coda indicates that it could just as easily be about dying from the perspective of a dead person. Here are the opening quatrains:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –
I do not see the speaker as imagining her own funeral (or wielding tropes about a depression unrelated to dying) as much as internalizing the attitudes of those intimates who are doing anticipatory mourning and not hiding it from her. In addition, the “beating” “drum” could be an emblem of rapid physical deterioration, the shutting down of the body, that naturally affects the mind (“going numb”) during the end-stage of a terminal illness. The poem continues with “a Box” being lifted and creaking “across [her] soul,” the auditory impression of “those same Boots of Lead,” and then further auditory imagery that leads to the isolation (alienation?) of dying and what might be called the nothingness of death:
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –
Paradoxically, from the perspective of an unexplained afterlife, the one who has “Finished knowing” knows this ending, and she reasonably represents the breaking of “Reason.”
As a thanatologist, Deborah, what do you find potentially illuminating and/or unproductive, mystifying and/or demystifying about this text?
Golden Alecson: Depression is a kind of death. So, whether this poem is about depression or Dickinson’s take on dying and being dead, is not that significant for me.
As a result of research into the dying experience, the psychiatrist, Peter Fenwick, and his wife, Elizabeth Fenwick wrote a book called The Art of Dying (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012). They interviewed people in their dying time as well as those who were with them in their final hours, including hospice nurses. I do not know exactly how many accounts were recorded and included in the book. I can offer a general sense of what is shared. What the Fenwick’s have found and write about is in contrast to Dickinson’s ghoulish poem. The dying speak of being on a journey that is taking them home. They speak of visitors such as dead family members or religious figures appearing to accompany them. Like the accounts of people who have had a near death experience, they have visions of light and a sense of omnipresence and peace. Hospice nurses have reported that many patients in their last days reach out their hands from their beds as if to grasp someone who is invisible to others.
My dying husband told us that he was circling a golden island. He expressed bafflement about all the voices he was hearing, voices of the dead. I had a hospice patient who also spoke about people calling to her while she wondered why she was still here!
In light of all of this, Dickinson’s poem is mystifying, intriguing and self-indulgent, but it does not offer a guide for the dying. I will try to examine her first line: “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” Why the capital letter for Funeral and Brain? Style? You would know, Tom.
Fink: Let’s say style. Dickinson’s seemingly arbitrary capitalizations in most of her poems have elicited a lot of critical discourse, each with its own somewhat but not wholly convincing reasons.
Golden Alecson: The line almost reads like a migraine headache can be described as a funeral in one’s brain. A funeral is a gathering of people that occurs after there is a death. In her brain, where one thinks, she “feels” a funeral. Does a funeral have a feeling or do the people who are part of the funeral have feelings? And, what are those feelings? They vary from grief to possible relief. Does one feel in one’s brain or in one’s heart or some other place? Or, does Dickinson herself have feelings about her own demise? If so, what are they? What I can decipher from her poem is that her death, any death, all death, and death in general is not good. I am hardly the poetry critic that you are Tom, but I don’t think Emily Dickinson herself knew what this poem is about. It’s kind of clever in an obtuse way.
It is only natural for some of us to try to imagine what it is like to be dying and then dead, caput. That is, those of us who are not in denial about our mortality. For those in their dying time, Dickinson’s poem may validate some of the fear, but it would seem that offering more fear is not helpful. What is helpful is for those of us in the presence of the dying to acknowledge their experiences and visions as real. What is helpful is to be open to the mystery of it all and the absolute wonder of life and of death.
Fink: In soliciting your thoughts about this poem, I am not suggesting that Dickinson, in writing the poem, should be offering a guide for the dying, as Donne, a Christian minister, was trying to do. That would be a tall order for any poet—theologian or not—to be expected to achieve, but perhaps such verse can help those who are in the presence of the dying, even slightly, and perhaps we can pay attention to more than the fear that the poet presents and what you term the “self-indulgent” aspects in the opening lines by focusing on the final quatrain. Is there possibly anything useful in the trope of the “plank in reason” “breaking” and the abstract representations of the end of “knowing – then”? I ask this because it seems to me that this constitutes an openness to “mystery… and the absolute wonder of life and of death.”
Golden Alecson: Your initial question was, “Deborah, what do you find potentially illuminating and/or unproductive, mystifying and/or demystifying about this text?” I interpreted this to include for the dying, which Is why I used the word “guide.”
I can appreciate your interpretation of the last line suggesting the mystery. If we lose our ability to reason, then how is knowingness possible? By what means do we know? Either the “then” is the end of knowing by reason and a new kind of knowing is born of death (or whatever Dickinson was getting at) or the experience of going through the worlds lands one in a place that is unknowable. You could say there is some wonderment about all of this.
Fink: A different kind of imagined experience of death can be found in Dickinson’s poem 465, which begins with the line, “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—.“ There are tropes and images about the somber atmosphere, the witnesses of the death scene, and the dying person’s “sign[ing] away/ What portion of [her] be/ Assignable,” and then the bothersome fly returns:
and then it was
There interposed a Fly—
With Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz—
Between the light—and me–
And then the Windows failed—and then
I could not see to see—
The fly’s presence is an absurd distraction from the gravity of death, even an abuse of the dying being’s situation, but it’s not unrealistic. (Nearly a hundred years later, one could find this kind of narrative element in a work by Camus.) It seems much better that the last thing that someone thinks about in this life might be “a golden island” or that he or she would experience, as you put it, “a sense of omnipresence and peace,” but I imagine that some have to deal with a final perception that separates them from “the light.” The last two lines, though, give us even more to think about: the “failure” of “the Windows” and the repetition of the verb “see.” I’d venture a guess that this doubling indicates that an actual visual faculty, literal seeing, is just a conduit to a more profound spiritual seeing; both may be thwarted. What do you think is going on here?
Golden Alecson: You’re asking me?! I have no idea. OK – I’ll take a shot at it. Imagine you are a paraplegic lying in bed and a fly lands on your face. The fly becomes the focus of your attention. Everything is reduced to that fly – an annoyance that increases moment by moment, second by second. You are powerless when it comes to the fly thus making the fly all-powerful. The human condition is dwarfed compared to the mightiness of the fly. You could say that Dickinson’s fly is an “absurd distraction” that makes fun of “the gravity of death” and/or it is an example of how we lose sight of the bigger picture.
Before I go on blindly, I am struck by the lack of emotion in her poems. What does she really feel about the fact she will die one day?
This fly comes in between her and the light. I don’t think that “the light” she is writing about is what I mentioned earlier, a literal light that the dying have expressed as seeing. I think the light she is referring to is what can be seen when only alive, not dead. With death there is darkness, an inability to see. Why “I could not see to see –“? Is she just trying to be clever or the rhythm is off if the poem ends with just “I could not see –“ But, I could go with your interpretation: the first “see” is literal and the second “see” spiritual. I can’t tie in my original understanding of the fly with its use in the last stanza. Let’s see – the fly is a distraction and it is interfering with the finality of death. I’m losing ground here.
Fink: It’s interfering with the speaker’s dignified recognition of the finality of death.
Golden Alecson: Yes – better stated.
Fink: Does Dickinson evince a lack of emotion, or is implied emotion discernible? Her figurative language sometimes conveys a numbness that is probably the result of an excess of emotion. At other times, it conveys a deep sadness, as in the “funeral” in the “brain” of the previous poem’s speaker. And in this one, I read the failure of the windows as full of sadness.
Golden Alecson: I don’t agree that an “excess of emotion” leads to numbness. Numbness is the result of stifling one’s emotions or not being able to identify what your emotions are. Yes, there is a sadness and a numbness that I get from this poem. Perhaps the windows are her eyes.
Fink: One of A.K. Ramanujan’s poems has the ironic title, “Death in Search of a Comfortable Metaphor.” Apart from the weirdness of the personification of death as searcher masking the fact of the poet as searcher, his point, I think, is that there’s nothing comfortable about death or human beings’ relation to it, and it’s ridiculous to think you can find a “comfortable metaphor” for such things or even an accurate one. Ramanujan’s speaker tries to think through his “grandmother’s version/ of how scorpions die/ to give birth” as evidence of death as a generative force—for example, a dead body becomes “humus” for vegetation that feeds living creatures like elephants—but the closing strophe rejects the kind of cheerfulness that the metaphor seems to promote: “But when did elephants/ console the living/ left behind by a death?” Many poets can’t help trying to represent the unrepresentable through tropes.
Golden Alecson: Death itself may be impossible to capture in words but certainly one can capture one’s feelings about one’s mortality.
Fink: Unlike the poems by Dickinson that we’ve just discussed, Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” features a dialogue in which both participants, the father and mother of a dead infant, express their emotions rather directly. The husband wants to know why his wife is frequently looking in a particular direction with a haunted expression, and she doesn’t really want to communicate with him, but he figures out that she is turning to the family graveyard and then that it’s “the child’s mound….” Here is a substantial passage in the middle of the poem that presents a barrier to their ability to communicate:
She withdrew shrinking from beneath his arm
That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs;
And turned on him with such a daunting look,
He said twice over before he knew himself:
‘Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?’
‘Not you! Oh, where’s my hat? Oh, I don’t need it!
I must get out of here. I must get air.
I don’t know rightly whether any man can.’
‘Amy! Don’t go to someone else this time.
Listen to me. I won’t come down the stairs.’
He sat and fixed his chin between his fists.
‘There’s something I should like to ask you, dear.’
‘You don’t know how to ask it.’
‘Help me, then.’
Her fingers moved the latch for all reply.
The husband understands that his “words are nearly always an offense” to her and sees it as a problem in gender relations (“A man must partly give up being a man/ With women-folk) yet he suggests that full communication is essential for “those that love,” and he begs her not to “carry it to someone else this time.” Almost immediately after he implores, “Let me into your grief,” he undoes his own quest for communication with a criticism of her way of processing that grief, and the conflict escalates:
I do think, though, you overdo it a little.
What was it brought you up to think it the thing
To take your mother-loss of a first child
So inconsolably—in the face of love.
You’d think his memory might be satisfied—’
‘There you go sneering now!’
The husband denies that he is sneering and expresses his frustration with what he perceives as her inability to hear him out about their personal tragedy, but she interprets an earlier behavior of his as evidence that he has no right to talk about this subject:
‘You can’t because you don’t know how to speak.
If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand—how could you?—his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs
To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.
Then you came in. I heard your rumbling voice
Out in the kitchen, and I don’t know why,
But I went near to see with my own eyes.
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.’
‘I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.’
‘I can repeat the very words you were saying:
“Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.”
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlor?
You couldn’t care! The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretense of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
But the world’s evil.
Perhaps the man has an opportunity to express his actual feelings about the child’s death and to contextualize his behavior as something less than evil, but instead, he patronizes his wife: “‘There, you have said it all and you feel better.’” She doesn’t. Not at all. When she responds, “‘You—oh, you think the talk is all’” and renews her determination to leave, he invokes patriarchal force:
‘If—you—do!’ She was opening the door wider.
‘Where do you mean to go? First tell me that.
I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!—’
I hesitate to adopt the view that either of them has a flawless or an entirely flawed perspective toward the work of mourning, and Frost does not explicitly intervene in their marital discord.
Deborah, do you see in these two characters’ discourse particular attitudes (or combinations of attitudes) toward mourning and death? If so, how do you chart the way their attitudes clash? If not, what’s really going on? Finally, what relevance does this ‘”transcript” have for the development of thanatological awareness?
Golden Alecson: Finally, a poem that gets me in the kishkas. If ever there is an experience that has the potential to totally alter a person’s very identity, it is the death of one’s partner or one’s child. In this poem, a dead baby of a newly married couple has just been buried in the backyard by the husband. Perhaps the baby was stillborn.
When married, we may think we know how our partner will behave but we truly cannot predict his or her response to the death of a loved one, a terminal diagnosis, and most certainly the death of our child. This is true no matter how many years into the marriage. In this poem, Amy and her husband communicate as if they barely know one another. This might be the case because of the newness of their marriage and because grief is transforming who they are. They have lost their child and they are losing one another.
I had the opportunity to listen to the highly-regarded grief expert, Kenneth Doka, speak about a grief model that he and Terry Martin developed. They identified two patterns of grieving: intuitive and instrumental. Intuitive grieving is an emotional and physical upheaval that takes over. There is sobbing, wailing, an inability to focus, a turning inward as if extremely vulnerable, exposed, and raw. There is ruminating and self-absorption. It is a pattern of grief that ebbs and tides to which the griever is helpless. Instrumental grieving is action in response to intense emotion rather than surrendering to the emotions. Instead of crying under the covers and feeling paralyzed, one is planning the service, setting up a foundation to honor the deceased, and in the case of “Home Burial,” digging a grave in the backyard. It would seem that intuitive grieving is what women do and instrumental grieving is what men do. However, Doka would not agree that is a matter of gender. It is also possible to exhibit both patterns (known as blended grieving) as I have experienced given the deaths that I have survived. An example of this is the complicated grief that I experienced after my mother’s suicide. I sobbed and wailed and carried on (intuitive) but I also wrote poetry (instrumental).
Amy is an intuitive griever and her husband is an instrumental griever and neither one of them understands the process of the other. And, this is a time when understanding is needed the most. The husband dug the grave as a job well done. Amy is horrified that he seemed satisfied with this work. The husband thinks Amy’s emotional response should be winding down. They judge each other’s grief response and become further alienated.
Another example from my life: My first child came into the world brain-damaged due to medical malpractice during labor. She mercifully died two months later. At some point, a point that I thought was way too early and couldn’t understand, my husband wanted to go back to teaching private vocal lessons (which he did on the side, while being a choral director). I was gripped with grief and I didn’t know how he could put those feelings aside to teach. He needed to reaffirm himself as the provider in the family – an action that comes under instrumental grieving. Going back to work was his way of coping.
Frost’s poem is a perfect poem to help couples understand each other following the death of a child.
Fink: Yes, Frost’s poem gets me in the kishkas, too. The one thing that very slightly mars this dramatic dialogue for me as a late twentieth century reader of poetry is that, occasionally, the iambic pentameter norm, from which the poet sometimes departs (with good results) by adding or subtracting a syllable or two in an interesting place or substituting another kind of foot for an iamb, seems stilted. They, these are farming-class (?) New Englanders who wouldn’t be speaking like Shakespeare’s tragic heroes and heroines: “And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs/ To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.” Gosh, is Amy really gonna talk like that? Frost’s contemporary William Carlos Williams wouldn’t make that mistake!
I’d like to turn to a few poems, one at a time, whose authors represent aspects of the process of their own terminal illnesses, or so it seems.
The last poem in Ai’s last book, published in 2010, the year of her death, is a long piece called “The Cancer Chronicles.” Ai is famous for her dramatic monologues, but the speaker is a kind of narrator “Stage 3” begins with the recognition that “she was still alive” in February after “decid[ing] she’d die in December,” and it goes on to chart a complex anxiety:
And she was very anxious instead of relieved
That she had deceived herself
Into believing she’d never be seeing a new year again.
She hadn’t made any plans.
She had to admit that she didn’t know when anymore,
But she knew how it would end.
Or did she?
“Stage 4” begins with a report of the cancer patient’s inability to “drink from a glass” and how she coped with this, and it moves from physical to psychological torment:
She consoled herself with thoughts of imminent doom,
Yet she lingered as sometimes the dying must
To further their endless torment
As if it weren’t enough that they knew all too well
Life was limited and unjust.
Mere luck had kept her going
Until it didn’t anymore.
Ai’s speaker goes on to describe what it was like to be “at death’s wide-open door” and to step “across the threshold” as the dying person in her “hospital bed” is situated amid “the detritus of what her existence had become”; thoughts are compared to marbles that clatter:
The marbles’ refrain, “Let go, let go,”
Increased as more pain radiated from her body, eased,
Then came back as if reeased
To attack her again and again
When in one last spasm
Her cataclysm ceased.
Earlier, in articulating the problematic aspects of Donne’s perspective, you called implicitly for a poetry that represents the “looming failure of doctors to save you and death’s inevitability [as] the most horrifying punch line to existence,” a poetry that “can touch this horror for those dying in a death-phobic culture.” Does the specificity of Ai’s poem fulfill these goals, do so partly, or fail to do so?
Golden Alecson: While we are only examining certain stages of the poem, it is important to note that Ai shares with us that the woman in the poem was aware of something growing in her breast and chose not to do anything about it. That is to say, she did not see a doctor and did not avail herself of treatment. Whether this was true in Ai’s actual experience, I do not know. Do you?
Golden Alecson: It would seem that this woman dealt with the disease process with an awareness that it would eventually kill her. It was a question of when, though she began to count on an earlier demise than what occurred.
The “when” part of dying is an enormous struggle not only for the dying, but for the surviving loved ones. Unless you live in a state where medical aid in dying is legal or you have the wherewithal to end your own life, you are at the mercy of the disease process to end your life. How does one live with this kind of uncertainty? Can one live with this kind of uncertainty? Or is one only marking time consumed by symptom management? The woman in this poem “hadn’t made any plans” – that’s how certain she was, but death tricked her: It came later rather than sooner. This is an important reality when it comes to dying. We think we will die when we are ready and that we will be taken mercifully after a stretch of physical and emotional suffering. But it doesn’t always work that way. If we are relatively young (as was Ai when she died) and our heart is strong, it can take a long and grueling stretch of time to finally die.
So yes, this poem does speak to the way we die in a death-phobic culture. If we were a more humane culture, medical aid in dying in whatever form the dying can deal with (given the symptoms of their illness) would be a given. Unless a terminally ill person wishes otherwise, a lethal dose should be available when their dying process becomes excruciating and our advances in pain-management do not alleviate their suffering. But, as a death-phobic culture, we come from the Abrahamic/Biblical mentality that the more suffering, the better.
Given the last lines of the poem, pain management was not working. This is the case for many and this poem is important in that acknowledgment. The “cataclysm that ceased” can be many things: her cancer, her pain, her life coming to an end, her ordeal over the years, etc. There does not seem to be any enlightenment from her dying time. I believe that is also true for most people. There is nothing gleaned or learned or purposeful about one’s dying time. In this regard, the poem rings true. We can wonder, “What does it mean to die? What does it ask of us?” but rarely are these considerations present in our dying time.
In answer to your question, Tom, this poem does fulfill my goals as to what a poem can show us about our dying time. It is a reflection of reality, not a transcendency to what more we can learn from our dying time. Except for the fact that “she” in the poem forgoes early detection and treatment for cancer, which is rare in our culture, the limited relationship of herself to her illness and dying time is the norm. This is what happens. There are no lessons. There are no deep insights into one’s being and purpose. There is just the fact of illness, symptoms, and waiting with dread and some muted hope, for death. Can it be otherwise?
Fink: “The fact of illness, symptoms, and waiting with dread” are central features of Melvin Dixon’s “Turning 40 in the 90’s,” evidently completed in April 1990, but there are other aspects as well. Dixon and his partner both died of AIDS-related illness, the former in 1992 at 42, shortly before medication became dramatically more effective for PWAs. Dixon was a scholar of African American literature, the main subject, along with gay male desire, of his pre-AIDS poetry.
The poem begins with the recognition that the two of them had “promised to grow old together,” and the rest of the text is a catalog about what “growing old” means for men in their forties: “Dry, ashy skin, falling hair, losing breath/ at the top of stairs, forgetting things.” Dixon, who, in this case, is clearly the speaker, names the facts of treatment with military precision (“Vials of Septra and AZT line the bedroom dresser/ like a boy’s toy army poised for attack” yet “the casualties are real”). insists upon dealing with the practicalities like the calculation of “pensions and premiums” and the absence of “senior discounts” necessitating their effort to “clip coupons/ like squirrels in late November, foraging/ each remaining month or week, day or hour.” In this sense, Dixon’s poem somewhat resembles Ai’s, but there is a more concise, telegraphic, and metaphorical rendering of physical deterioration:
Now the dimming in your man’s eyes and mine.
Our bones ache as the muscles dissolve,
exposing the fragile gates of ribs, our last defense….
We hold together against the throb and jab
of yet another bone from out of nowhere poking through.
You grip the walker and I hobble with a cane.
Two witnesses for our bent generation.
These sentences are more “literary” than Ai’s, though hers surely have literary elements. Dixon returns to a military trope in speaking of the “gates” and “defense,” and the longest line in the last stanza turns out to be about length, the “bone… poking through.” The image of “the walker and… cane” set up the final line with the adjective “bent” as a pun on a form of sexuality that seems “crooked” in a heteronormative culture. Do you believe that these literary devices enhance, mar, or neither enhance nor mar the accurate “reflection of reality”? Do they facilitate entry into an emotional core of the PWA’s experience for a reader who has not had such an experience, make entry more difficult, or have no effect?
Golden Alecson: Though it is Ai who is dying of cancer, her poem is written about someone else. Her poem is about the internal world of a dying person. Dixon’s poem is about both the internal and external reality of dying and it comes directly from his experience. Every word (or literary device, as you would put it) in this poem is a perfect rendering of the reality of living with a terminal illness. I am quite taken with this poem. It paints visual pictures. The vials of medications, their colors, remind us that our dying time is a relationship to the material objects of our illness, medications, and to the ravages of disease in our bodies. He is resigned. They are resigned. No denial here. They are practical in their projection into what will not be a future.
Dixon is not yet forty and his partner is “not yet forty-five.” My GOD. There weren’t enough years for preparation if even preparation is possible. “You grip the walker and I hobble with a cane.” What an acceleration from middle age to old age. It is breathtaking in its sadness.
Thus far, of all the poems that you have presented, Tom, this one rings with the most truth and possibility to connect with others in this dying time. It encompasses the loss of a future, the tenderness of the present, the reality of a body dying, the accoutrements of the ailing, and a love for the other in his living while dying.
Fink: I’m glad it resonates with you, because I find it extremely poignant, too.
I’d like to end this overwhelmingly serious exchange by focusing on humor, albeit dark humor. One way of challenging the denial of death in contemporary U.S. culture is to mock it. That’s Sandy McIntosh’s strategy in the catalog prose-poem, “Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways to Escape Death.” Here are six sections:
1. Aunt Elizabeth didn’t believe in death. “Just go up to the coffin and sprinkle water on his face. He’ll wake right up. You’ll see; they always do.”
2. Wes, my cab-driving colleague told me that the first thing his mother invariably said upon viewing the deceased was, “My, doesn’t she look healthy?”
6. In the end, Carlos Castaneda, unable to burn with “the fire from within” implored his disciples to “intend me forward, intend me forward!” beyond death. But despite his disciple’s intentions, he died. He was cremated. Later, his disciples told the world that he had not died at all. Instead, he had entered the realm of the “third attention.” They continue to defend their belief against all. “Intend!” they shout at their doubters. “Intend! Intend!”
13. When George’s father died he complained to a religious friend that, no matter how much he had prayed, his father had not come back from the dead, as Jesus had promised. “You have only to wait for the right time. It could be one year, or one thousand years. Just wait.” George’s heart was uplifted. “Thanks,” he told his friend. “I didn’t know you could do that. I’ll just sit right here until it happens.”
18. When all seems lost, write a letter to your departed loved one and pay to have it printed on the obituary page. Apparently, the deceased read obituary pages, judging by how many letters to them are printed. Now the problem is to figure out which newspapers your own departed ones read.
25. Do not live at home. Most fatalities occur in the home.
Sections 1 and 2, I think, speak to some strategies of the (very lucrative) funeral industry, while 6 and 13 take a religious ethos to an absurdity beyond Donne’s “Holy Sonnet.” 18 and 25 don’t fit comfortably into any thematic category.
Obviously, McIntosh’s “Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways to Escape Death” is not useful to a dying person, but could this kind of irreverence in literature paradoxically help readers who have acted as though they “didn’t believe in death” begin to gain some insight?
Golden Alecson: What immediately comes to mind are these quotes from Woody Allen, “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” And, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.” Allen is speaking for the majority of people in our death-phobic culture. We laugh because our mortal status is too unbearable to embrace, but first we have to admit that indeed death awaits us all to get the jokes. So, any references to death and the dead have the potential to remind us of the cosmic deal, as I call it. We pay for being alive with our death. The absurd notions of Mcintosh make the reader wonder and in that wondering is death and the dead. Literally speaking, the folk who do not believe in death know that life as we live it comes to end but maybe, just maybe, there is life-everlasting once we die. Then we have all kinds of religious concepts of what this looks like and what choices we have to make to guarantee a spot in the preferable afterlife scenario. To me, this is child-like thinking and another symptom of death-denial. If God is good, then why would He let us die? The answer lies in Genesis which I get into in response to Donne. Getting back to your question, Tom, “insight” is a strong word for those of us mired in the Abrahamic traditions. We have been brain-washed as a culture, one generation after another, for thousands of years. Mcintosh’s quips do not bring insights, though they may bring some awareness. Insights would require an analysis of our conditioning and then a deep and serious inquiry into what life asks of us and what dying asks of us.
I haven’t brought up Ernest Becker and his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death so I will now as closing remarks that are germane in my mind to the times we find ourselves in. That is to say, fucked up times. For me, the state of humanity is directly linked to death-phobia and death-denial, not only as evidenced by the crazy health care decisions individuals makes at the end of life which are corroborated by our families and the medical professionals, but as evidenced by those in political power. Becker says that one of the ways in which we cope with our morality is to immortalize ourselves. This brings us back to Allen’s joke, but in fact he has immortalized himself with a legacy of films. His way of immortalizing himself is through creative and positive human potential. This kind of immortalization, Becker would say, also increases self-esteem. Then you have the other means of immortalization which is destructive and ego-driven but still a way to deny death. These are people whose need for immortalization is insatiable. This is the means that Trump and other narcissistic maniacs choose. I believe that Trump and all those associated with him are in complete death-denial and their actions to immortalize themselves are so extreme that it doesn’t matter how many human beings are sacrificed, including our very planet. Death-denial extremis. Finally, from Becker, and proven in a clinical setting by a social-psychologists, is that when an ordinary person is reminded of his or her mortality he or she becomes agitated and more punitive toward others. When we are reminded of our morality, we identify more with a particular group. With Trump as president, everyone is reminded of their mortality because erratic moves on his part can and will threaten each of our lives. He is also constantly reminding us of mortal dangers. A communal response to this threat, which is actually the manifestation of Trump’s profound death-denial, is for people to identify more with their own group and to ostracize others. This is also known as the “Terror Management Theory.” We “manage” the terror of our inevitable death by seeking people we perceive to be like ourselves and by rejected those who are not. This is what is happening all over the world, the clashing of the Abrahamic faith traditions.
Well, I’m glad I got that off of my chest.