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That Long Grey Corridor

June 15, 2007

From Dick Jones’ Patteran Pages, June 3, 2004

Judi Benson, in her introduction to the poetry of bereavement anthology The Long Pale Corridor, writes of poets dealing with death in their work as ‘daring to give expression to the unthinkable in an effort to make sense of it.’ Certainly if poets have a task to perform in the service of all it is to engage with the unfathomable, the ineffable, & to try to distill from them some sort of lingua franca that will enable meaning. And from the earliest of writings to the contemporary, that function has produced some of the finest & most enduring of utterances. From the solemn, beautiful but ultimately didactic pronouncements from Ecclesiastes (All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again) to Dylan Thomas’s angry & desperate invocation to his father to rage, rage against the dying of the light, some articulation of the inconceivable is being attempted.

For my part, I have no belief in a divine being who is our author at the beginning, our custodian during the journey & our ferryman at the end. What lies beyond death for me is a mystery. I assume extinction but, of course, the force that drives me, my sense of self, revolts against the assumption. However, I seem to retain, at least to some degree, the child’s conviction of personal immortality. A combination maybe of immaturity & self-centredness preserves me against any active apprehension of the notion of my own non-existence. When I imagine the death of my partner or my children I am appalled, but ruthless analysis of what I believe I would feel in a world without them tells me more about my perception of myself than of them as independent souls. To be is to be perceived: with their passing there would pass also the greater part of what I am now, such is my absorption into who & what they are. Thus their deaths would involve processes of extinction for me too. But beyond some inchoate sense of the theoretical plausibility of such an eventuality – through a car accident, sudden illness, murder – their deaths have no developed reality or meaning for me.

So in respect of my own mortality &, by extension, the mortality of those intimately close, I seem to ‘cast a cold eye’ as I engage with day-to-day life. The death of my father six years ago, however, did produce in me a completely different dynamic. He died at the age of 88 after a short illness, moving rapidly from complete alertness to his condition through brief unconsciousness to death. What struck me forcibly during the few months of the inception & advancement of the cancer was his curious compound of calmness & phlegmatism coupled with fascinated absorption with the mechanisms of what he recognised from the start as the process of dying. Lacking religious faith too – although pretending open-minded agnosticism to my believing mother – he adopted towards dying the same Zen-like detachment that had characterised his living. As he awaited death the sense of excitement & joy in nature that so energised him throughout his life, moved into a state of equilibrium with an acute awareness of oncoming extinction. I asked him a couple of weeks before he died whether, even at the very end, he would still be asking questions that he knew would never be answered. He smiled & said, “Oh, I should think so.” I thought then, as I think now, of Jung’s declaration – a favourite of Dad’s – in Sermons to the Dead:

In all times and in all places is Creation.
In all times and in all places is Death.
Man is a Gateway.

He saw what few steps of his mortality were left as taking him up to that gateway. And that’s the closest that either of us got, or are likely to get, to a sense of death within a spiritual dimension.

What of poetry in relation to these contemplations of death? Firstly, a general proposition. Throughout time by far the most enduring poetic preoccupation has been with solemn, ritualistic considerations of death within the context of religious belief, & these largely concerned with death as a conduit to a better place. With the passing of fundamentalism & the emergence of a more humanistic existential view, the poet’s concern overlapped the spiritual & the personal apprehension of death – as, for example, in Tennyson’s synthesis in In Memoriam of personal agony & a sense of the immanence of God in the wake of the death of Arthur Hallam. Subsequently the 20th century poet – notably in the aftermath of the First World War – focused acutely on bereavement, seeking through verse, if not answers to mighty questions, at least some accommodation of unspeakable loss.

Secondly, my most focused reflections on the death of my father emerged not in the form of emotional reaction or rational analysis but as a poem. I conclude with it now, not with any great notions as to its artistic value but as a statement of personal accommodation that attempts some sort of inclusiveness. It comments principally on the characteristic nature of my father’s recording of his passage through illness. It also considers the manner of his passing & the peace that it brought him & his family, who were with him near to the end. For me a poem best marshalled, organised & codified my reactions to bereavement.

CLEAR BLUE SKY

My dad was a man of prose – a specialist: words used
like gardening tools to conjure shapes, to fashion patterns.
Language mattered: correspondence ran to pages –
letters to the council; ‘thank you’ cards to nurses
that read like testimonials. Even notes to the milkman
came across like billets doux to an old and valued friend.
And the writing: tiny box-shaped words in biro,
whispering in lines, or gathered quietly in the margins,
small-voiced but insistent, looking for truths.

When he knew that he was dying, he sat at the edge
of his life, scribbling a commentary. Twinges
from a cancer hotspot got a note immediately,
draped around the Guardian crossword clues
or squeezed between the calculations in his ledger:
where it hurt, for what duration, and, in imagistic detail,
the character of pain (like a voice, like broken glass, an ache
like winter rheumatism). And, towards the end, in his little diary,
potted phrases: “Slept well,” “Insomnia,” “Coughing still.”

For we who sat around his bed, it was the silence
that confounded. To the nurses plumping pillows, lifting cups
from which he didn’t want to drink; to waiting family
fiddling with the radio, sifting through his laundry,
he said nothing. All his words were spent just days ahead
of the breath that carried them. And then, the afternoon
of the day he died, the clouds drew back, late spring appeared.
Mum leaned back towards the window, smiled and said:
‘Look – a clear blue sky,’ and we turned to see.

My father didn’t turn his head. Whatever sky he saw
was far behind in time, or maybe just ahead. Whatever sky it was,
no messianic veil, no chariots of fire obscured the view.
His great abundance, just like ours, was absolutely empty –
birdless, sunless, silent and ineffable, mocking the mad commotion
down below. He drew in breath, breathed out and said:
‘A clear blue sky,’ floating the words on the sterile air
like leaves. He didn’t speak again; he died that night
and, one by one, the stars went out, a lexicon set free.

by Dick Jones

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  1. June 16, 2007 at 8:55 am

    Dick – unexpected tears sprang to my eyes at the end of your poem. I’d read your post, nodding, appreciating, considering, thinking about my own losses and attempts to explain them in words, and then you took me toward the specific of your father (which became, I suppose, translated somehow into the specific of my mother, and yet not her at all) and in the very last line caught me, once again, in the inexplicable event that is death. “A lexicon,” likened to the stars, “set free” — what an extraordinary phrase, and image after this appropriately wordy poem which seems to reflect the man you set before us so beautifully. Thank you for this inspiring and moving beginning to my day – one that also begins with a clear blue sky.

  2. Carroll
    June 18, 2007 at 1:06 am

    Another good one, Dick — I’d missed this at your other place, but it’s a timely read indeed this Fathers’ Day.

  3. June 18, 2007 at 4:45 pm

    Very,deeply beautiful, Dick. Of course it took me straight back to my own dying father’s bedside. I haven’t known what to do this Father’s Day. Maybe I’ll write about my father, once again. Maybe there is no end to the sad exploration of the departure of someone who is embedded in the structure of your existence.

  4. Dick
    June 21, 2007 at 5:43 pm

    Thank you so much, Beth, for your appreciation, & Bonnie, yours too. It means a lot to know that this commemoration touches on your experience.

    A fortunate coincidence Carroll, that it appeared around Fathers’ Day.

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