Most of us are in denial about nearing death, and perhaps we ought to be. It’s easier to carry on without imagining what it’s like not to exist, or to know the interior of a coffin, or to be catapulted off into a kaleidoscopic second life.
Have I lost you yet? I’ve almost lost myself.
Poets are famously obsessed with death, and death poems can sometimes help us process both the general concept of death and specific deaths. Whether it’s Emily Dickinson wryly making peace with death or Walt Whitman celebrating it, poems can help ease the pain by showing us there is beauty, or at the very least camaraderie, in death.
Although I’d hate to re-watch No Country for Old Men in its entirety, I could watch the last few minutes every day. After all the violence and bloodshed and triumph of evil in the film, there is a quiet breakfast scene. Tommy Lee Jones’ character has retired as sheriff and is uncertainly planning out his empty day and talking to his wife. He tells her about the previous night’s dream (one that sounds like a scene from a John Wayne movie) where his deceased father was riding on horseback ahead of him holding a horn full of fire. In the dream, he knew his father was going to journey ahead, build a big fire against the dark and cold, and wait for his son to join him. Then the film cuts to black.
Whenever I see it, it makes me cry. Because I’m nostalgic about the old-timey West? Heck no. Because there’s a powerful archetype at work—the father lighting the way for the son, our ancestors lighting a path for us in life and death. Many religions contain elements of ancestor worship. The author of Hebrews (after recounting the stories of Abraham and other major figures of the Jewish faith) says that we are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses.” Do I believe our dead family members are out there somewhere rooting for us, petitioning to God or the cosmos on our behalf, waiting for us to follow them in death? Well, I don’t know.
But it’s a powerful idea. Sometimes the idea of a life after this one seems impossible to me, and sometimes the idea of no life after this one seems impossible to me. Fortunately or unfortunately, it’s out of my control…though when I’m reading or writing a poem about death, it feels more in my control. A poem I love that insists on new images related to death, that takes death by the collar and slaps it around a little, is Lorca’s “Gacela of the Dark Death.” Here’s the version translated by Robert Bly. Lorca, like the sheriff’s father, holds a horn of fire and goes ahead of us to light the way.
“Gacela of the Dark Death” proposes a beautiful kind of death. This poem turns its nose up at the dirty details. The speaker says he doesn’t want to hear how corpses decay, “how the mouth goes on begging for water…the torture sessions the grass arranges for.” The poet agrees to sleep, says he wants to sleep, but only if everyone knows he’s really alive. He demonstrates the vibrancy he plans to maintain after death with beautiful, surreal imagery. He wants to “sleep the sleep of apples.” Does he mean real apples, the Platonic ideal of the apple, the golden apples of the gods in mythology, or the fruit that caused the downfall of man in Genesis? All of this and none of this, I’d say. Lorca conjures up the archetypal significance of apples and yet puts them in a new position. They are quiet but they live, sleeping the best possible sleep. To sleep like an apple is to be full of quiet juice and wholesome flesh. A healthy death.
Again, the poet avoids the petty, dirty realities of death by asking us to cover him with a cloth because he knows “dawn will toss fistfuls of ants at me” and to throw water over him to wash off “the scorpion claws of dawn.” The poet enlists our help in sleeping in the land of no decay, no dust unraveling to dust. His sleep removes him from time, from the space between dawn and dawn. In his new consciousness, he will “live with that shadowy child / who longed to cut his heart open far out at sea.” Here, Lorca seems to allude to some mythology, but as far as I can tell, it’s his own private mythology. A hidden, isolated youth who wanted to sacrifice himself for the sake of passion—the poet’s desired companion in the next life.
Surrealism doesn’t appeal to everyone, but I’ll never understand why. For me, this poem demonstrates the power of fluidity, of untethering the mind from earth and setting it free in the interior world. I admit there is a time to study concepts with microscopes, to pay attention to the smallest flea on Death’s nose…even in poetry. But there is also a time to brush off the dirt, to shrug off dawn and live with shadows and avoid the sharp sting of time. It couldn’t hurt to practice the art of dreaming now, knowing that the darkness is populated, that dreamers like Lorca have a fire waiting far ahead.