Death of Man (2004)
This poem proves that I was not only an atheist but a pagan (in the gloomy Teutonic sense) in my twenties. Yet I was groping my way towards some kind of optimism.
All of his mourners dressed in white;
The nurses who were on that night.
The next-of-kin was far away
And hardly knew him anyway.
So, looking at his empty bed,
They said the best that could be said
And reassured themselves at least
Of some good things in the deceased.
His sourness was the driest wit
And the ice with which his eyes were lit
Was irony. But all allowed
The man was proud, the man was proud;
And all he finished with what pride
That sugar-coated cyanide.
The youngest girl, with smooth white hands,
Told them he never made demands.
The others nodded-- this was true--
But thought of how he'd look at you
With cold grey eyes that seemed to ask
Why life was such a thankless task.
It seemed he had not understood
That life is good, that life is good;
And flat refused what they supplied,
Their sugar-coated cyanide.
If life is lethal, life is sweet,
And poison can be good to eat.
Why should the smooth white nurse regret
Her business is to sweeten death?
She knows nobody else can claim
Their work is not to do the same.
And all our billboards, all our shows,
Deny what everybody knows;
However much we see or own
We die alone, we die alone;
But sweeten what we can't avoid
With sugar-coated cyanide.
But she ends her shift of night
The smooth white nurse sees city lights
Reflected in the river's gloom
And feels that life is more than doom.
And, walking through the neon streets,
Fills with a thirst to taste life's sweets
Although they kill you, and they lie.
For if to live is but to die
Then dying is a kind of life;
The nurses' cares, the surgeon's knife,
Do more than pull an empty stunt
In winning us an extra month.
And for a month's, a moment's joy,
We gladly die, we gladly die;
For this doomed roller-coaster ride
This sugar-coated cyanide.
December 31 1999
This is almost certainly the most widely-read poem I've ever written. It was written on a suggestion of my father, to appear in a Millennium issue of the community magazine he edited (and mostly wrote), The Ballymun News. That issue never actually appeared; The Ballymun News was dying a long (but honourable) death at this point.
However, I did enter it into a Millennium poem competition that ITV, a British television station, were holding on their Teletext service. (Teletext never really caught on in America, as I understand. It was a technology whereby each television channel would have a number of text pages which you could access with your remote control-- almost a forerunner to the internet. Some of the pages were quite functional-- TV listings and so forth-- but there was lots of other stuff, too, like advice columns and gardening sections and quizzes. I liked it.)
I entered the poem, it made the shortlist, and on the last day of the new Millennium (unless you want to insist that was actually December 31 2000), it was chosen by the British poet Roger McGough as the winner. I got a few book tokens and a signed volume of Roger McGough's poems, but of course the big deal to me was that thousands-- hundred of thousands?-- of people might be reading my poem. And the feeling that I was starting the new Millennium in style.
Incidentally, the rhyme in the last verse-- rhyming 'again' with 'vain'-- has become one of my pet peeves, and something I would never, ever do these days. Who actually pronounces 'again' like this?
My father was so fond of this poem he would keep a copy to read to visitors, to my mixed pride and embarrassment. He still mentions it. In the intervening fifteen years, I've come to see it as over-florid, but its message seems quite laudable. The English poet referred to is, of course, Tennyson, and the poem quoted is the New Year section of In Memoriam (1849).
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
The poet wrote who did not know
And would have shuddered if he knew
The horror of the coming age
Eclipsing all the ills he cried.
How could he hope to turn the page
To know of wars where millions died
And lands touched by the colonist
Left withered into penury?
What wonder if his vision missed
What only madmen could foresee?
Well did the English poet know
That every foul and evil thing
Would not melt with the winter snow
Nor mercy blossom with the spring;
But had the gods allowed him look
Into the deep and many hells
Of future days, he might have shook
With horror at the New Year's bells.
Tonight it seems, like poets' dreams
That peace on earth has really come
As all life joins its many streams
To celebrate millennium.
As midnight near and nearer grows
A myriad congregations pray
That many ills our present knows
Might start this night to melt away
And peace begin to reach to all;
Who would not echo such a prayer?
And yet I cannot but recall
How vain the English poet's were.
A thousand years escapes the power
Of human thought to comprehend;
Ten centuries of hour on hour
All working to this midnight's end;
The last breath of the thousandth year
Looms larger as time onwards rolls
And I feel the ambassador
Of thousands of departed souls.
Along with us who breathe tonight
How many others, passed away,
Had fondly wished to win respite
To celebrate at least this day;
While thousands upon thousands more
Back through the vast millennium
Had pondered what time held in store
For humankind in years to come;
And musing thus upon what fate
The distant future might allow
Had fixed their eyes upon this date
That sees us gathered here and now;
This beacon-point, this final day
That fell to be unveiled to us?
So why should we not gladly play
The role of mankind's witnesses?
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky--
Though every hope may be disproved
May none see through such jaundiced eye
As to regard this night unmoved--
Although so many a New Year peal
Brought forth so many a hope untrue
Still whisper with unvanquished zeal
Ring out the old, ring in the new;
Ring in the new, ring out the old;
For who can say that hopes are vain?
And if they fail a thousandfold
May others hope them all again.
All writing, perhaps, could be divided into that which is written for the sake of writing it-- from a newspaper editorial to a sonnet written in a creative writing workshop-- to that which is written because the writer has something he or she is yearning to express. (I'm not suggestion one is necessarily better than the other, or that the division is absolute.) Anyway, this is a poem I wrote because I had something very definite I wanted to express. I'm not sure how well I succeeded. Maybe it depends on whether other people have had this feeling. "Deja Vu" might be a bad way to describe it, because it is not confined to deja vu. It is something I still yearn to express-- which may go to show I didn't succeed this time.
I think an elipsis at the end of sentences is generally a thing to be avoided, but that it is entirely appropriate at the end of this poem. Of all my 'Poems from a Decade', in fact, this might be my favourite-- an opinion I don't expect anyone to share!
It all fell apart in the hundreth part of a second
As he walked by the side of the road, and the cars came and went.
And he came to the part where the onrush of vehicles thickened
And they slowed down and stopped, near the place where the avenue bent.
It all fell apart without even the tiniest warning
but it always falls down in a place where you'd never have guessed.
He heard a friend calling his name, through the air of mid-morning,
And they turned and they greeted each other with scant interest.
And they talked-- and he felt himself drift to a time that was twisted--
A time that had slowed, as the traffic about him had slowed.
He felt that this moment was all that had ever existed
This meaningless mid-morning talk by the side of the road.
A numbness crept into his soul-- like some soft anaesthetic--
This moment was all he desired, drained of passion and depth.
Who needs all that stuff? It was nice here, secure and hermetic;
He felt as the drivers might, snug in their cars as they crept.
He knew every inch of this homely, familiar terrain
And each words that his friend would say next; but this did not seem strange.
He had been here before, and would be there again and again
In this dull conversation, forever protected from change.
And then he stepped out of the cosy and echoing cave
And all of a sudden returned to the workaday sky
And the traffic jam broke, and the cars broke out, wave after wave,
And he helplessly felt the last trace of the strange feeling die....