I was reading one of John Ashbery’s poems last night when I opened Twitter and saw tweets about his death. It was a weird event that still feels like a lie when I recount it to myself. I was looking at his work again by the way of a list of poets I encountered two years ago that I often return to.
I often think of death now. Not just as an idea, but in the hard details of it. In questions like, What will happen to the work on my laptop if I suddenly die? No one knows my password, so there won’t even be the opportunity to appear brilliant as it often happens when work is viewed posthumously with a bias for their unfinished state. There’s always someone dead or dying around the corner in Lagos. And every decision taken during the day—to cross the road, to stay put; to eat outside or to go hungry—carries with it the shadow of death.
In the wake of his death, poems by Ashbery sprung up on my timeline. Ashbery’s poems, like those by many poets I now try to read—Anne Carson, Emily Dickinson—exist in a place just beyond my understanding. There’s the feeling that if I pay just enough attention, I may be able to glean something from the myriad of possibilities they contain. One of the Ashbery poems shared that caught my eyes was Honestly, which ends on the verse:
Once we were passionate about the police,
yawned in the teeth of pixels,
but a far rumor blanked us out.
We bathed in moonshine.
Now, experts disagree.
Were we unhappy or sublime?
We’ll have to wait until the next time
an angel comes rapping at the door
to rejoice docently.
(I know there’s a way to do this.)
There’s just the hint of death in the image of “an angel rapping at the door”, although he might as well have been talking about something else in the entirety of the poem. I went back to my notes of the past few years and found even more thoughts on death that I have read as an education in that inevitable end of us all.
“There is no such thing as a natural death: nothing that happens to a man is ever natural, since his presence calls the world into question. All men must die: but for every man his death is an accident and, even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation” (Simone de Beauvoir, A Very Easy Death)
I don’t read Simone de Beauvoir, and now forget where I saw the quote above, but it fascinates me in its assertion that no matter how much we make ourselves familiar with the fact of death, it still arrives an accident.
A lot of poets enchant me, but none as much as Emily Dickinson, whose meditations on death, such as in Because I Could not Stop for Death, I mull over quite often. Last month, I read and thought about The Dying Need but Little, Dear.
The dying need but little, dear,—
A glass of water’s all,
A flower’s unobtrusive face
To punctuate the wall,
A fan, perhaps, a friend’s regret,
And certainly that one
No color in the rainbow
Perceives when you are gone.
Two things fascinate me about this poem. First is that we are all dying, and are all, therefore, in need of but little. And the second follows the first: if we are all dying, then perhaps all we need, as she states, is water, flowers, a fan, a friends regret, and that one person whose world will lose all colour in our absence.
Asbery’s A Sweet Disorder, the poem I was reading last night, ends on this verse:
My gosh, it’s already 7:30.
Are these our containers?
Pardon my past, because, you know,
it was like all one piece.
It can’t have escaped your escaped your attention
that I would argue.
How was it supposed to look?
Do I wake or sleep?
Featured Image: John Ashbery by Steve Pyke via Flickr