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mortality

When I die, I want to be buried under the ground under the floor of a library. I want the musty smell of turned-over pages to seep down through the wood floor, through where the wood turns black around the nails. I want to dream of ink, through the stone-scattered earth and a plain pine coffin, of ink pressed as words into the pulp of paper, of the way the afternoon light comes yellow through the high windows sprinkling down on floating flecks of dust. I want to hear the footsteps of a kid looking for the first time for a particular author as the joists creak. I want to feel the shift in the weight as a girl stands on her toes to find the place her books will be on the shelf, when she writes them. I want to see the sigh escaping a man who’s finally found a book he once loved, once lost.

I bought my first book shelf at an estate sale, after they’d sold everything worth something, everything but the clothes and the cat and the press board shelf. My granddad, the girl said, as an answer. He was 74. It had five shelves, the top shelf too small and the bottom one too large so the books had to be arranged by size. I set it by the head of my bed, and stacked my books all there, with only a few left on the floor unshelved. I lined the top shelf in paperbacks, pushing in the penguins and the signets, the bantams and the ballentines, until there wasn’t room for another full book. The last one I pried in, trying to keep the cover from crushing back. At night, trying to see the shelf in the dark light of the alarm clock, I smelled the old owner’s cigar smoke seeping out of the pressed particle wood. For weeks or maybe longer it hung there, in the dark, the soft scent of hours spent smoking and reading, paper turned and leaves burned and a life spent rocking quietly into the night.

The books you read, as a boy, they’re about men of action. Knights and cowboys and heroes and adventurers. Men who went over the horizon, into the next day, and if they die they die gloriously as a testament to things accomplished, to deeds done and victories claimed. You never read, when you read the books of a boy, about men who die wearing a bathrobe and reading until the end finds them half way through a cigar, half way through another book. But you read, when you’re a boy like I was a boy, with glasses and a book shelf and a penchant for words that aren’t usually used, you read and you see things in books like you’re the first one to see. You read and, as word follows word follows page follows cover, you see that specter. You get a glimpse of the outer limit, of your mortality.

In books, the man said, in books rowed up on the shelf you see, for the first time, your own death. You begin to measure the time this way. To come to feel the passing of life in titles. You come to look at a library the way the alchemists kept skulls on their desks, as a time check. Remember death, reads the space of every shelf, remember the limitations. I read 47 books, this last year. And 43, the year before, and 40 the year before that.

If a year of my life means 45 books, then I’ll read 270 by the time I’m 34. A few more than 2,000 when I’m 74. Two thousand titles I’ve yet to choose that will mark my accomplishments. Two thousand titles that could be any titles but whatever titles will pass, will pass shelf by shelf, author by author, passing my time. All of them could be bound together as the book of my days, the record of my lamp-lit nights.

We live in the paradox that life is change, but that change taken to the ultimate is death.  Early signs of the great alteration shape our expanding or contracting limbs and are inscribed expressly on the face.  When the young woman of twenty-five notices faint lines around the mouth or tiny crowsfeet at the corner of her eyes, something even more intimate than vanity makes her stop to reflect.  The script for her very own mortality play, written on the finest parchment, has begun to develop, nor does she need any special clairvoyance to divine the final act from the first.

La Rochefoucauld says that neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.  That’s the reason we avoid long or frequent exposure to the black rays of the mirror—unless we have the temperament of those medieval monks who kept brightly polished skulls in their cells as a handy memento mori, large enough not to escape notice but smaller than the coffins that still more ascetic contemplatives used to sleep in each night.  Some of the first group, striking a hopeful note, planted a candle on top of death’s head, meaningless to his blind sockets but not to the eyes of the living.

Looking at early photographs of yourself is not exactly a lark.  The person represented is recognizable, and you may even discover, among several patronizing attitudes and self-deflating commentaries, something like parental affection for that inexperienced youth being examined.  Considering all the roads to take and ways of cutting one’s hair current in that era, perhaps his weren’t the worst, just as maybe Crosby, Stills and Nash aren’t so bad, really.  To revive an earlier phase isn’t possible, though, or, more to the point, finally desirable.  For, in a sense, the photographed subject is our elder, and the present moment—fresh, breathing, more up to date—“younger” than any from the dim decades of yore.

We’ve changed; and we don’t care to be so passé as the ridiculously dressed person in the picture.  Does that also mean we must accept change even when raised to the highest power?  Apparently.  Preferring the present visual or verbal record implies that I will also prefer to it the next and the next and the next, until, finally, icon and identity plunge beyond the reach of pictures, in fact, beyond time and change altogether.  A photograph is, granted, a kind of death-mask, with the difference that it has been molded on a living face. The apple owes part of its sweetness to our knowledge that it gives the pleasure of its taste only when we consume it. In fact, we cannot enjoy anything unless, in the process, time consumes us as well. Mortality, expressed in the first-person, present-perfect tense, is summarized in a mere three words: I have lived.

A poem is also by analogy a photograph of the author. Rereading our first published apprentice work, we will feel many of the same emotions described above re looking at old photographs of ourselves. The self-portrait genre in poetry isn’t as common as in painting, though John Ashbery and Charles Wright have produced admired examples. The point is, even poems not designated as such are self-portraits, of mind rather than of body, and to just that degree, more intimate. We were hardly conscious in those days of all that could be thought or said about us. We know more now than we did then, and what we were is part of what we know.  If we can allow ourselves to approach objectivity (if only as a limit, in the mathematical sense), we may also allow that, despite the clumsiness and inexperience, despite the glaring failures of skill and hollow bravado, those early self-portraits have a vitality and authenticity that deserves some sort of acknowledgment.  They belong in the Department of Records that each life builds up in its life-span.

You’ve guessed it.  I’m preparing a new selected poems.