Dispatches | October 25, 2010

“Every moment is an elegy, isn’t it?  Even moments of great fortune.”

–Jonathan Johnson, from his author’s note in TMR 33:2

Picking up where we left off, this week we present yet another elegy: “To Whoever May Care for Me Dying,” by Jonathan Johnson, the third poet featured in TMR 33:2.  This will be my last blog about that issue, since the new issue, TMR 33:3, is already out in bookstores and mailboxes near you.  As the quote from Johnson’s author’s note suggests, all of the poems in this feature are elegiac, but they approach the subject of loss and longing in different ways.  In fact, the progression of the poems trace three different approaches to elegy, as they move from the subject of longing and desire (heightened by close, correlative descriptions of the sublime Scottish coast), to two elegies for the speaker’s mother, and then finally to this poem of the week, a self-elegy where the speaker addresses the person he imagines will care for him while he is dying.

Johnson is not the first poet to imagine his own death—a practice that, to me, risks inducing ontological vertigo, or as Keats wrote, after thinking how he would “cease to be,” “then on the shore/ Of the wide world I stand alone and think/ Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.” There are countless other self-elegies, but a few that come to mind are John Donne’s “A Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness”; Jonathan Swift’s “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift”; Mary Leapor’s “Mira’s Will”; Emily Dickinson’s “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died”; Christina Rossetti’s many self-elegies, including the trio “Song,” “Remember,” and “Echo”; Cesar Vallejo’s “Black Stone Lying on a White Stone”; and W.S. Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death.”

Poets who imagine their own deaths seem motivated by different concerns: Donne attempts a spiritual tune-up to prepare for salvation, Rossetti worries about her beloved’s reaction to her death, Keats regrets the loss of what he loves most—elusive love and poetry, Swift uses his elegy to comment on, among other things, a survivors’ secret schadenfreude, and Merwin seems, as Keats was, “half in love with easeful death,” when he writes that in death he will no longer “find [himself] in life as in a strange garment/ Surprised at the earth.”

Johnson’s address to his future caregiver seems both a means of accepting the inevitable humilities of the failing body, and also a stubborn determination to hold onto the dignity of choosing how to die, since by giving his permission in advance, he can consent to the intimacy and awkwardness of being bathed, dressed, and ministered to by a stranger.  With directives to “swab the raw places,” and images such as the eyedropper of morphine, and above all for the description of the caretaker who can take in the patient’s progression from skin to skull, and still treat the dying person with dignity, Johnson’s poem is unflinching in its accuracy.

The poem works because of the tension between the stark reality of the situation, and the parallel consolations mortality’s essentialness gives to simple things like a clean cotton shirt, a rose, and an impromptu song. This poem’s placement with the other poems in this feature makes it especially poignant, as it seems informed by Johnson’s own experience of caring for his dying mother.  In fact, I believe this is also what makes this poem resonate, since the caregiver Johnson describes, who is someone who would step outside “to look at the light on things,” and who ultimately sings, seems in some ways another version of the poet.

The one poem I keep thinking of in relation to Johnson’s poem is Dickinson’s “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died.”  Both poets situate their speakers on their deathbeds, and both reference the dwindling down of possessions and identity just before death.  Dickinson “gave away what portions of me be assignable,” and Johnson gives up the need to be remembered as one who “lived once/ on the sea, in the wind/ and sun.”  Both poets use the situation of death to make efforts at solemnity seem suddenly absurd, Dickinson with her anti-angelic fly, Johnson with the “pink, wet sponge/ small on its plastic stick.”

Above all, both poets are concerned with the fate of the senses in the last moments before death, as if this is the last part of living to let go, or as if the senses are life.  Where Dickinson’s speaker relates the last moments before her death from beyond the grave, ending when the senses have been emptied out (“I could not see to see”), Johnson ends the poem on the fullness of the senses: “If there’s a rose/ somewhere in the room/ won’t you bring it to me?/ Press its deep open folds/ right up to my nose./ And whatever song you might sing,/ please, sing to me.”  These images are a powerful antidote to loss— simple, plausible things to hope for at the end of life.  Johnson seems to argue that even as the body fails, our receptivity to beauty and art persists, and even defines us.  In fact, for Johnson, the final gesture of song seems not only a last consolation before dying, but also the vehicle by which he is able to die, or to be transformed.  Carrying the poet’s mind to the brink of death, this self-elegy affirms the poet’s life.

I recommend reading the rest of Johnson’s poems in TMR 33:2, as the combination of elegies showcases the genre’s many dimensions.

FYI, I will be taking a hiatus from the weekly blog. It is contest season, which means we have many submissions to read for our Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize.  Stay tuned to the website, as we continue to feature exceptional poems of the week!