This week I have been re-reading Audre Lorde, in The Cancer Journals. Mostly it was for the shelf-post I was putting together. But along the way, I began to collect her thoughts on death. For example, this:
There must be some way to integrate death into living, neither ignoring it nor giving in to it.
How much that reminds me of some lines in a letter of Rilke’s, about loving—even if not exactly loving—death... I go to find them in the introduction to A Year with Rilke, by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy:
Rilke would teach us to accept death as well as life, and in so doing to recognize that they belong together as two halves of the same circle: “I am not saying that we should love death, but that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love.”
Elsewhere in that introduction, Barrows and Macy talk too, of Rilke’s capacity to embrace the dark, and his attitude toward impermanence and death. To them it is a kind of courage, but not a conditional courage, dependent on an afterlife. Nor is it a stoic courage, keeping a stiff upper lip when shattered by loss. It is courage born of the ever-unexpected discovery that acceptance of mortality yields an expansion of being.
I don’t know if I’d call it a discovery (and certainly not an ever-unexpected one), but I do love and wholly believe in that idea that the acceptance of mortality yields an expansion of being (italics mine). Lorde says something so very similar, in another part of The Cancer Journals:
Living a self-conscious life, under the pressure of time, I work with the consciousness of death at my shoulder, not constantly, but often enough to leave a mark upon all of my life’s decisions and actions. And it does not matter whether this death comes next week or thirty years from now; this consciousness gives my life another breadth.
See how that idea of breadth (with Lorde) resonates with the idea of expansion (with Rilke)? That’s what I’m talking about. A kind of widening.
I think here, of course, of Rilke’s circles. But also, of a poem of his, that I have loved a long time:
You, darkness, of whom I am born—
I love you more than the flame
that limits the world
to the circle it illumines
and excludes all the rest.
But the dark embraces everything:
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations—just as they are.
It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me.
I believe in the night.
But I began by telling you about Lorde. Ever the warrior, she takes all this to a place, too, of radical valor:
Yet, once I face death as a life process, what is there possibly left for me to fear? Who can ever really have power over me again?
And later (in reflecting on the ‘partial death’ of losing her breast):
I mourn the women who limit their loss to the physical loss alone, who do not move into the whole terrible meaning of mortality as both weapon and power.
At the same time though, she is uncertain, vulnerable, and workaday:
Every once in a while I would think, “what do I eat? how do I act to announce or preserve my new status as temporary upon this earth?” and then I’d remember that we have always been temporary, and that I had just never really underlined it before, or acted out of it so completely before. And then I would feel a little foolish and needlessly melodramatic, but only a little.
Here, like a party game for instant association, I think of a piece from a poem of hers:
When you are hungry
learn to eat
whatever sustains you
but do not be misled by details
simply because you live them.
These days I’m listening to old episodes of the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Off the Shelf. In a session from April 2017, I find an interview with Steve Zeitlin of City Lore (and already, as soon as I hear that name, I am transported to a classroom in Cooper Union in, what?—maybe 2002?—where I took a class with that very same Steve Zeitlin, on “Writing New York”). Zeitlin is talking about his recent book, The Poetry of Everyday Life. (Here I think, from ModPo this month, of James Schuyler: It’s the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in. / It’s a day like any other.) But towards the end of the conversation, he tells a story about his father-in-law:
Lucas was an amazing man. [...] He lived to be 99 years old, and he just died recently. [...] When he was in the hospital for the last time, we took turns staying overnight with him... There was a night when [it was my turn], and as I’m lying there in the middle of the night, kind of doing some work on my computer on a cot that they set up in the hospital room, I hear him reciting:
I am dying, Egypt, dying.
Ebbs the crimson life-tide fast,
And the dark Plutonian shadows
Gather on the evening blast;
Zeitlin goes on to explain that at the time the family had had no way of knowing, at least until that moment, whether Lucas was actually aware that he was dying. Then, he adds that his father-in-law spoke to him. After he finished reciting the poem, he said to Zeitlin:
I’m closing my eyes. I’m thinking of all the billions of people who have done this before me.
I think of my own father, at his own end. Not because he was thinking of all the billions of people who had done this before—I don’t know if he was.
But because at the time, watching him die of cancer, I was.
I go back to Lorde: I want to write of the pain I am feeling right now, of the lukewarm tears that will not stop coming into my eyes—for what? For my lost breast? For the lost me? And which me was that again anyway? For the death I don’t know how to postpone? Or how to meet elegantly?
This idea, not only, of meeting death. But elegantly. This too, as something Rilke understood. I think of him on his deathbed, in Rachel Corbett’s You Must Change Your Life, refusing painkillers, refusing hospitals (where people died en masse), refusing even company (including his wife and daughter), so that his death would be his own:
In his bedside notebook, Rilke summoned it like a spirit, beginning his final poem, “Come, you last thing, which I acknowledge...”
I do know that my father made lists. Not only of all his books and of all his movies and of who he wanted to leave them to. But also, working from one week to another, of the books he wanted to re-read, and the movies he wanted to watch one more time, and even the music...
And so in those last weeks in that bedroom in Karachi, the four of us sat mostly together, to watch so many of those movies we knew so well. We watched The In-Laws (“Serpentine! Serpentine!”) and The Sunshine Boys (“Enterrr!”) and The Purple Rose of Cairo. We watched Irma la Douce and Rififi. (He was working his way to his top three—Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and East of Eden...)
From his collection of CDs and cassettes, we listened to Nusrat and Noorjehan. There was one afternoon he had me play—over and over as he sat remembering some day from his youth, something about a trip to Lahore, some day that he wouldn’t tell me much more about, because he just wanted to sit there quietly and listen—he had me play that Farida Khanum version of “Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo.”
He wouldn’t have known William Haines Lytle, but there was another afternoon he recited from most of Frost’s “Stopping.” (But I have promises to keep...)
(I helped, a little.)
He made lists in a notebook, and crossed things off them, one by one.
I get to thinking again of Rilke.
Come, you last thing, which I acknowledge...
Corbett says that on the last day of his life Rilke asked his doctor to hold his hand, and to squeeze it from time to time. If he was awake, he would squeeze back. If not, the doctor should sit him upright in bed to return him to the “frontier of consciousness.”
And so when death came, he met it with his eyes wide open.
The hour is striking so close above me
so clear and sharp
that all my senses ring with it.
I feel it now: there’s a power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world
I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.
It was only last week that Andrew and I watched the 1995 documentary on Lorde, A Litany for Survival: the Life and Work of Audre Lorde. Toward the end of the film there’s a moment when Lorde reads from one of the last poems she wrote—“Today is Not the Day.” By this point she is rail-thin, hair cropped close to a face that looks more fragile than any face of Lorde I had seen until then. Her voice raw and froggy, but clear like a vessel of light:
I am not afraid to say
I am dying
but I do not want to do it
looking the other way.
Rilke was fifty-one. Audre, fifty-eight.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[lunedì 08 marzo 2021 ore 19:03:07] [¶]