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last words

 

DEATH CENTOS
BY DIANA ARTERIAN
UGLY DUCKLING PRESSE
2014

death centos

Diana Arterian’s chapbook Death Centos is currently available in a limited edition set ($125) that includes two additional works of art. The first of these is a broadside, designed as a version of the Goose Game, with an inward-spiraling design that depicts a life cycle. The second is a game piece, accoutrement for the board: a small sculpture made of white brass, replica of a 2-franc piece (no longer in circulation), evocative of funerary customs in which the deceased are given money to help aid them in their respective journeys to the afterlife. The center of the letter-pressed broadside holds a statement from Arterian regarding her aesthetic intentions for Death Centos, in which she writes, “I have placed [my subjects, whose words comprise [these centos] on even ground . . . I have bastardized history in order to provide a poetic space in which they are marshaled together, allowing them company in the terror of the unknown.”

Indeed, the form of a cento – a quilt of human thought and experience, couched in the language(s) and perspectives of many – seems ideal for Arterian’s task of simultaneously memorializing and combining the last words of historical figures. These centos seamlessly combine the last words of geniuses such as Emily Dickinson, who described the onset of death with immutable innovation and elegance: “I must go in, for the fog is rising”; venerated historical figures, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who reinforced the importance of beauty, art, and faith: “Make sure you play ‘Precious Lord’ tonight – play it real pretty”; religious leaders, such as Jesus of Nazareth, who invoked the value of family, love, and unity among human beings: “Woman, behold your son; behold your mother”; and common criminals, guilty of unspeakable acts of violence, sadism, and evil, e.g., Lavinia Tucker, who revealed a chilling lack of either delusion or remorse to the last: “If any of you got a message for the devil, give it.” These quotes, like all employed in the text, are credited; those who spoke them are listed on the innermost edge of each page, alongside the binding. However, the speakers cited are not listed in an order that corresponds to the placement of their words in each poem. By scrambling the identities of the speakers, these poems successfully render death a truly egalitarian process: not only must we simultaneously confront criminals, admired personalities, and venerated leaders, but we are deliberately deprived of the opportunity distinguish among them. Thus is the reader compelled to acknowledge their common humanity – and, in this way, Arterian’s project seems to become less about providing these souls company among one another in the terror of the unknown, and more about giving them equal real estate in the psychic space of the reader.

For this reason, terror seems neither the most defining nor the most compelling quality with which death is portrayed in this collection that interrogates what it means to die, and how we use those final moments before death – both our own and those of others. In fact, death is associated more immediately with happiness than with fear or suffering: Arterian opens the collection by quoting, via epigraph, the last words of her grandfather: “I’m so happy.” In addition to its direct declaration of joy, the context provided by this epigraph encourages the reader to understand death as a unifier – familial – an occasion that facilitates communication between the individual about to depart and the rest of the living world. Four times in the text, death is referred to as “going home,” and once as “taking refuge,” suggesting that human finitude, rather than merely stimulating fear, may serve as an intensifier for our natural propensities for forging connections, exchanging knowledge, and learning from the experiences of others. This text specifically differentiates, via section titles, between the dying and the condemned; to succumb to our physical finitude, then, is not to be sentenced. We may have to die, but we are not punished by death – a view that suggests a paradoxical sense of agency; readers are encouraged to regard the moments immediately preceding death as an occasion that provides the about-to-die with a reasonable expectation of being not only heard, but remembered – a secular brand of immortality.

And, ultimately, these centos suggest that our participation in the immortalization of others – the post-mortem maintenance of their identities – is a communal project, one that is also egalitarian in that it renders the individual will less important than the collective memory that keeps it alive. “Only you have ever understood me/ and you got it wrong,” Hegel tells his favorite student, and then takes his leave. Even as death erases his identity and sends his ego spiraling through the ether of the unknown, his faithful student transcribes and remembers his final speech. And so our collective attention to another human being’s last conscious moments allows us to help preserve the self that is being effaced, as we choose to integrate their departing wisdom into their own lives via language and memory. However, Hegel’s words – and Arterian’s lovely, haunting centos – also highlight the true terror of death: in being immortalized by the memories of others, how much of your true self, as you’ve defined it, will live on? How much of you is in your own words?