According to Irish mythology, Samhain is a time when the veil between our world and the Otherworld becomes thin, allowing the souls of the dead to cross back into the world of the living. Also in late October, we celebrate Halloween where children (and adults) dress up as monsters and play with the idea of death, even trying death on as a costume (mummy, zombie, grim reaper). In Tarot, the “Death” card means Change, and this is certainly the time of year for change when autumn takes over and the leaves turn yellow, red, and gold, reminding us that death/change has its own particular beauty and is an intregal part of the natural cycle of life.
This month’s Poetry We Admire features work published in the last quarter exploring the idea of Death in all its myriad expressions. We’ve rounded up eight of the best new poems of the season from The Nation, The Rumpus, POETRY Magazine, Kissing Dynamite, Juxtaprose Magazine, Rust + Moth, and Wraparound South. — Kim
Yeah, I’ve seen the grim reaper wander
my neighborhood in a Chanel suit and a diamond
studded scythe because we all want to be overdressed
for the afterlife, we all want to believe
there is a special place for us
from “Everyone is Acting as if We’re Not Temporary, and I am Falling Apart in the Privacy of my Own Home”
by Kelli Russell Agodon in The Nation
This memorable, “finger on the pulse of the moment” poem by Kelli Russell Agodon has been shared widely since it appeared in The Nation last month and it starts off this curation for good reason. Agodon’s spin on the grim reaper makes death a fabulous fashion icon. Her poem is funny, quirky, and moving as it touches on the personal and the universal. We all want to feel like we’re not alone in this. And who hasn’t watched a loved one suffer a long, agonizing death and thought Neil Young was right; it’s better to burn out than fade away, just as the narrator concludes after watching her “nana fade into thinness.” The poem also has my heart when it imagines how “Death and we butt dial the wrong person.” If you haven’t read it yet, follow the hyperlink NOW. It’s one of the best poems of the year.
… or will he block the number
will he change his number again will he ignore calls to play bejeweled
hope the light from each shining stone reaches me through the unanswered
rings i wonder what ringtone death uses i wonder if he has an unlimited
from “death call”
by Marlin M. Jenkins in The Rumpus
Marlin M. Jenkins has three terrific poems in the most recent issue of The Rumpus. His third poem, “death call” starts with a Method Man quote as an epigraph (“and when death call i’m good I got call i.d.”). Jenkins picks up where Kelli Russell Agodon left off with imagining Death butt dialing the wrong person. Jenkins capitalizes on his own metaphor of Death making calls and takes it to entertaining and insightful ends, wondering if death plays bejeweled or has a friends and family plan. He imagines death answering an unexpected call half asleep with “grog wiping the crust from charcoal sockets.” And then death is at the movies where he will “follow the lighted stairs and a trail of stale forgotten popcorn.” The poem goes to a touching and vulnerable place where the narrator thanks death for not picking up, for not calling back and confesses “for a while if you had called / and if i saw your name i would have answered gladly.” I look forward to reading more from this gifted poet and -what luck! – his chapbook Capable Monsters is coming out from Bull City Press in 2020.
I believe in death, I believe in the last tree I will
ever see, perhaps with wind in it just as it’s turning color.
I believe in my friends’ weeping and in the terrible sorrow
of my wife, but why, on this side of things, with death still
only a small secret moving inside me, am I so hurt with pity
for myself, as if, one by one, anything I touch will disappear
from “Jesus Wept.”
by Stanley Plumly in POETRY Magazine
Plumly’s second stanza here is a riff on the Nicene Creed and the poem takes its title from the shortest sentence in the New Testament having to do with the raising of Lazarus and calling forth the dead. The poem spans Christianity and Buddhism, yet also somehow transcends religion and philosophy as it perfectly illustrates that feeling of being “beside myself sometimes, as if I’d already passed to somewhere else and for that moment was in two places at once, no place and a place without me.” This is a moment the poet says is “so lonely it was enough to make you weep.” Especially later when “the absence stayed with you and became you.”
There’s a funeral at our porch.
You do not say anything when I pick up its carcass
& show your happy face what the dead looks like.
I think the dead dress up themselves,
sometimes chaotic, sometimes tender like an egg.
Together, we watch what’s left in the funeral pyre,
charred meat becoming one with ash.
from “Pray the Dust”
by Njoku Nonso in Kissing Dynamite Poetry
This breathtaking piece by Nigerian poet and essayist Nonso starts with the “green tentacles of memory” and a funeral pyre on the porch after a “yellow bird disconnects from the orange sky,” having been struck by lightning. In Nonso’s poem, death is full of color, “an extraordinary wave gathering all we have loved” and love is “a wild horse without legs, bruised like an unrequited prayer.” The metaphor in this poem is astonishing and mesmerizing. A lock of hair from a lost love is saved, then decays, as death gives way to new life and in the end, “All is green. Then greener and greener.” And I love how the script is flipped on Halloween when “the dead dress up themselves.” Brilliant and beautiful.
Afterbirth is membrane.
What can afterlife be made of?
My family will gather.
The bowl I emptied sits ready
to hold tangerines or car keys.
If it’s autumn, wind rouses
semaphores of color to compensate
for the brisk season of dying.
by Susan Cohen in Juxtaprose Magazine
This poem is a gorgeous exploration of death as grace. The narrator imagines herself grateful “the way a storm inspires thanks / when the roof is finally patched” and when we go back into the dark “content never to be cold again.” The parallel themes of birth/death/rebirth are present throughout, with the poem starting on the image of how in the end we are “dirt-swaddled, / the stringy roots of dandelions, / lady smock.” There is a natural feminine strength here that effortlessly brings together the membrane of afterbirth with the mystery of afterlife. Do yourself a favor and read more of Susan Cohen’s work. Her genius and depth will sneak up on you again and again in the most tender and delightful ways.
It is all dead and changing still
fresh mustard yellow bloody orange
its veins respire color avenues of death
by Mary Buchinger from Rust +Moth.
This short, tight poem goes right to the heart of the idea that beautiful autumn leaves are ultimately different shades of dead. It’s a lovely and spare piece about change and death and the various meanings of “leaves” and “leaving.” The imagery and language play are strong with lines like “a gold tarnished copper / hemmed by its deadest edges.” I love how economically and colorfully it epitomizes the themes of the season.
When the cold comes, leave, or freeze.
You can sleep under barks or leaves. Some
of us go to sleep and never wake up, it’s okay.
As we crisp and wrinkle and become a church
for new life to worship in, the Earth brightens
into white stillness, and you’ll rise as pollen,
golden motes floating in your mother’s arms.
from “Somewhere on Earth”
by Michael Kocinski in Wraparound South.
Michael Kocinski actually has three not-to-be-missed poems in the new issue of Wraparound South, one of my favorite underrated smaller journals out of Georgia Southern University. Kocinski’s poems approach death with a sense of peace and trust in the natural order of things. In these poems, even after death the people we love are still here because we are all one; we rise as pollen or return after a long winter like black-eyed Susans.
I believe everything the Earth
provides is only semi-permanent, and
put my faith in the seasons, and worship
periodically the snow and thunderstorm,
cicadas emerging, maple trees dropping
their keys in lawns, turkey vultures soaring
over stone quarries and milkweed crowding
by Michael Kocinski in Wraparound South.
I leave you with this moving excerpt from another of Kocinski’s poems,“Metaphysical Questionnaire,” where the narrator addresses his readers directly and intimately: “You’ll want to know if I believe / in miracles, ghosts, and horoscopes. / I’ll tell you this: I believe in the / seasons, the colorful passage of time.” Kocinski again shows us how death/change is natural, how nature is regenerative, active (“emerging, soaring, crowding”), and holy.