Our time matters because it ends. My alone time is for everybody’s safety. Does anyone have a timely recipe for making toilet paper from cauliflower?
Existentialists and solitude seekers understand alone time; we crave it as others crave a stadium full of mutually inclined fans or a cheering place you can go where everyone knows your name. I work from home; do 75% of my buying online; and never get enough solitude before I must call it a day/night. From literal windows I view noble oak, maple, and fir trees and a lake in three directions; neighbors, if I choose to look, can be seen from the fourth direction. I spend a majority of time either staring into the fifth dimension or into figurative windows on the world, i.e., TV and computer screens. My pantry and medicine cabinet are stocked, and in an upstairs closet, a bulging backpack awaits an emergency. I made no plans to travel abroad this spring or summer, so these recent weeks have been business as usual. That’s not a phrase many are saying …
Normalcy means summoning Dr’s Moriety, Crippen, Jeckle, or Pangloss for inspiration; making character toe tags; or imagining their final words. What’s the phrase, ‘what the blind see, the dead feel?’ People and characters, I remind myself, are frail, robust, amazing but seldom bulletproof. The only time we approach perfection is on a job application. We are beings death has touched at some point previously—and altered. Some of us are no strangers to hospitals, the grim reaper, or illness.
My heightened awareness began (I suspect) when I experienced four deaths in one year when I was 8 years old—my grandmother, two school friends, and a beloved dog died suddenly. Three years later, a classmate and her sister were murdered in the woods near my house, the same woods I used as a shortcut. A favorite teenage cousin died of a brain tumor and three blocks over, a man that lived alone committed suicide. I became an avid watcher of horror films and reader of murder mysteries, the darker, the better. I was learning about the enigmas of life and death. One thing it was not was boring.
If health is the slowest rate at which one dies, what is sick about? There are many versions of this generic word on our minds lately, from love and motion sick, sick of heart, homesick, and sick & tired—to sick in and sic em Rover or [sic] to indicate something is intentionally written. What’s being passed around, and giving the phrase ‘don’t expose yourself’ new meaning isn’t anything like Love Potion #9 or Chanel #5. I wonder what someone will one day write or sing about the sickness called CV19, which arrived a telling 102 years after the Spanish Flu killed ~40M people? Will we learn it was bio-manufactured at a lab in the US, China, or Scotland, or hitched a ride on a meteorite? Will we have an epiphany about how being sick made us better—or worse human beings?
Is it sick in spring 2020 to look for humor in this madness that’s flipped too many mortal hour glasses upside down? To while away the days some folks make playlists: I Will Survive; Put the Lime in the Coconut; Turn a Whiter Shade of Pale; I Only Have IV’s for You; Mack the Knife, and of course They’re Coming to Take Me Away… Those of a maudlin bent includes tunes like Where oh Where Can My Baby Be, Yesterday, and Monty Python’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. Or they ready poetry, e..g, Dickenson’s Because I Could Not Stop for Death, Thomas’ Do Not Go Gently, or Nash’s Nothing is Glummer Than a Cold in the Summer.
A few friends are reading books or watching shows about people sicker than they are or might be, grateful not to have Esther Summerson’s temporary blindness (Dicken’s Bleak House), Howard Hughes germaphobia; Colin’s hypochondria (Burnett’s The Secret Garden); or the encephalitis lethargica that affected 1920s epidemic victims as recounted in Oliver Sacks Awakenings. Alternative reads include De Quincey’s Confession of an Opium Eater; Proust’s snarky multi-volume opus; or Camus’ classic The Plague, which addresses quarantines and the resulting profound disruption of life. A friend in California just read a recent (fiction) book about social distancing practiced by cystic fibrosis patients in Lippincott’s Five Feet Apart.
One of the books I’m writing is called An Act of Ambition. The fictional story juxtapositions itself over incidents recorded by a real life person that died more than a century earlier. The plot is told in part through diary entries; I was inspired after reading the diaries of Italian writer, rebel, suicide Cesare Pavese. He called the diaries This Business of Living. This may be the crux of what we’re trying to do in a time of uncertainty—live like it’s nobody’s business…as cloistered and contained as one of Emily’s poems.
The poems that follow were taken from real life experiences and remembrances, and stumbling Wordsworthian’esque meditations on intimations of mortality. They helped me vent, process, and put conflicting emotions into words. During these traumatic times, join me in taking up the cry of Game of Throne’s Valyrian’s, ‘to the god of death, we say not today.’
Preparing to Go
It’s just us, old pal, so late—
That dawn, clearing her throat, slowly ignites the sky;
And with her ample snuffer of waking dreams and light,
Puts out tomcat night.
Drawn to the mystery am I, the care
Darkness takes to set its stage, though her audience sleeps,
With curtains drawn, delicate doors locked, breath’s sweet
The props remain —
Empty brandy glass, coffee dregs, stubble of the unawake
An opened book, silent halls, damp smells the dark designs;
Clearly now, I hear time’s neon ebbs and swells.
By sight, by sound, we measure what belongs
Count the whirls, sighs, drips, drops
Of this vigil, this insomniastic watch
I load a spoon of cocoa into the pot,
Add sugar, cream, vanilla—and a double shot.
Cup lifted to lip, with fingertips spread
Drumming the landscape, heavy of head,
These eyes blink slow and salute—
You, fading, waning moon.
Good morn, old pal, I know, I know;
It’s time I too begin to prepare to go.
That New Years’ day, picking up ravages
Of last night’s attempt to evoke fun
The shrill ring of the phone, twice
That unformed morning, pronounced
A child arrived and an old friend died
With an Eliot’esque whimper and a bang;
Ah, which was which?
The bell still peals for all, I thought–
No longer interested in ordering trash
I sat for a space, before the ash strewn fireplace.
Sifting through the powdery past, and closed the flue,
Irate over so much ignorance.
Dying, once commonplace—child learned legends and myths,
Faced at home, on battlefields, in muted light—mourned and mattered
Must now yield: to time, technology and nonchalance;
Must be penciled in, not leave loved ones brittle, bereft;
Must be politically correct, must not be called “death.”
How unfortunate to pass away, be reinterpreted into earth,
How crass. With modern medicine and technology,
We’re supposed to last—beyond departure’s day;
Even when ready to leave; the rule is not to fade away;
To let all live: the dull, the dim, oblique—godlike.
Only the bad must go punctually “into that good night.”
He loved so many things; he could not break, but he could rage;
He was strong; made us laugh, this generous man
It’s hard to conceive he sleeps;
He who ran, breathed, dived, crept; he never slept.
That was for another day, for old age . . .
He had no quarrel with the world, this authentic, sterling friend;
He sailed calm seas, married—made a home, skied, sang off key
This perennial protester and donator, waver of flags…
But a mad woodpecker penetrated his brain;
Banged and hammered without relent,
Hammered and banged, hammered and banged.
For him I enter broken lines, for those we have lost,
We the living and this newest life, its small cry added to mine,
Like poet St. Vincent Millay, are not resigned,
Will not let old friends dissolve away . . .
A verse of Auld Lang Syne.
Dinner that night was ribs—slowly cooked, darkly smoked
With rice and greens, and black eyed peas for luck.
I added a loaf of crusty bread, and a bottle of rusty red;
It was good to eat, good to feel full; but it did not last—
That feeling of filling a void; seasonal comfort and joy.
Diminished by his death; sobered by intimations of mine
Before retiring that New Year’s night, I toasted my friend,
Gathered scattered ashes in the fireplace;
Cool, baby-powder fine, this compost of wood
Tomorrow would serve another cause—
Fodder in my garden plot;
Even in death, all is not lost.
A Very Still Life
Arriving early for rites of your unworlding
What do we care for tradition now
A ritual makes an act official, yet I
You said go on without me
Even if it kills you
A Nice Finish: Key West, 1985
Paints preserve us
So we varnish not;
Coat us with shellac.
Whitewash our exterior,
And stucco all our cracks.
Give us this our daily dose,
But never, never look too close;
For while our finish is quite slick
Inside we are very sick.
Rx: death, 2 coats please
Refrain at an Irish Grave: Northern Ireland, 2013
“How much land do we need? Just enough to be buried in.” (Tolstoy)
This earth, this sand—holds his past
As air holds an invisible man
A community of who’s.
The wind stirs—we are done, he and I
Water bearers pouring it out.
If he still thinks or fears death
He does it less—testing transparency
Perfecting a new art
Nothing anchors him
What matters now?
When stars descend, he doesn’t entertain them
As his kind wife entertained us, refilled cups.
He rises, hitches a ride—forgets mortality
Soars like steam, imbued with autonomy
While we conjure the moon’s alchemy
And memory—to resurrect him.
He’s good to go, reanimate
A mortal form, in darker mode
Dances through sorrow into day.
My mind strays, and I resuscitate
An encounter long ago
A strange man, like him
A non-descript room
The size of this—plot of land.
The mystery of small spaces
Contains lives, generations
Illusions we leave behind;
Tolstoy was right.
Lucerne: Maryland, 1990
An essence of elusiveness
Days of ascendancy
Nights of decline
Warped and marbled
Caverns and cisterns
Of Lucerne’s mind.
Distilled drops of votive flames
Wine and men though
Lucerne never thought of them.
Tangled threads, troubled times
Variegated, wove the web
The lurid loom
Penelope and Cassandra knew.
Her resume remarked
Lucerne dabbled in spectral arts
Majored in specular pursuits
Gothically harbored stardust truths.
Her epitaph implied
Lucerne died before demise
Hopeful ignoble death
Would evoke eternal rest.
Lately when night is still
And the moon misted and full
Lucerne sings a lullaby
Under rocks that guard the rise
She lures the lost.
Come to the edge, abandon the beach
Life is long, love’s out of reach;
Losses are beyond eulogists.
Stolen time withdrawals
Into bowels of forgetfulness
Storms sweep borderlands
Between darkness and dreams
Say her name,
Leo Lament: 1996
It was mid-September, too early for harvest
When his heart burst, like overripe fruit.
Fittingly, the serpent bit its tail;
And our lives–though still true
With his going.
Indignant and baffled had he grown,
A failing body, weary, worn;
His footsteps slowed
Retreating from city to town,
Hill to mountain top,
Top to workshop,
From there to unaware.
How ironic death became
His last best habit;
He kept it close, never uttered
Its sacred names–never let on.
What were those forays in final days?
Trips on planes to distant states–
Eluding what awaited you
Like the man in Damascus?
It’s well beyond September now
Spring came and went again.
Slow to realize
What we knew.
Borders blur in this new environment;
The garden scythe resembles
A question mark;
To summon you, earth, air, rain, and flames
Especially flames—arbiters of Leo brilliance.
We wait, a crop of unplowed fields he laid
Seeded with potential to
Best him–before mirrors reveal
Our funeral faces