poems about death

6 posts

“How Much Time Is Enough Time?”


As we approach the month named after Janus, it seems we are more aware of time. It’s even more true in a year that closes a decade, as this one does. And more so still when that decade happened to be more ominous than most, forecasting God knows what for coming years.

On a personal level, time works in mysterious ways, too. It is a precious commodity. There is never enough of it. This seems even more so when applied to our days on earth or, even more important, our loved ones’ days on earth.

Whether we live to 50, 70, or 90, we can always use more time. There is never enough to pack in all the experiences we crave, both new ones and cherished ones built into our daily routines.

Thus is time part and parcel with sadness, wistfulness, yearning. Thus do we get into trouble with our convenient nemeses past, present, and future.

Stephen Dobyns seems aware of this in his poem “Prague,” where he wastes no time (if you’ll forgive) by doing what good poets should all do—getting to the point in line one, right out of the gate. The narrator’s wife is dying of cancer. Both time and the poem, then, are of the essence.

Note how he looks forward. Note how he looks backward. Note how he finds succor in neither direction.


Stephen Dobyns

The day I learned my wife was dying
I told myself if anyone said, Well, she had
a good life, I’d punch him in the nose.
How much life represents a good life?

Maybe a hundred years, which would
give us nearly forty more to visit Oslo
and take the train to Vladivostok,
learn German to read Thomas Mann

in the original. Even more baseball games,
more days at the beach and the baking
of more walnut cakes for family birthdays.
How much time is enough time? How much

is needed for all those unspent kisses,
those slow walks along cobbled streets?


Before getting specific in the end (unspent kisses, cobbled streets), Dobyns gives us the crux of the matter with a koan-like question “How much time is enough time?” No one wants to hear the possible answer: whatever time we’re given. And no one dares suggest that somewhere, somehow, there is an actual answer.

No one.

Poems About Death


We have all heard (at least here in New England) Jonathan Edwards’ words: “Sinners in the hands of an angry God,” but what about “God in the hands of an angry sinner”? Welcome to the poetry of anger, disillusionment, and death.

The poem “I had thought the tumors…” came out in 2008, a year after its author, Grace Paley, died. In it you hear the plaintive voice of a woman with a terminal illness. Death, it is said, is the great theme of literature down through the ages and will remain so because of its stubborn mystery and our stubborn and childish belief that it is something others do, not us.

The truth, as we know but hate to acknowledge? Death is random, heartless, and ironic, among other things. It has little regard for race, gender, religion, or class. Unlike humans, it lacks prejudice in every way. And it is the great unifier, bringing us together with the vast animal kingdom we are a part of but like to think we are above.

Whether you are healthy or sick, young or old, you will recognize the lament in Paley’s poem-that-knows-better. And though she admits to some shame at the end, she should have felt none. The incentive for this poem was all-too-human, and the reason it draws us in and succeeds.


I had thought the tumors…
Grace Paley

I had thought the tumors
on my spine would kill me but
the tumors on my head seem to be
extraordinarily competitive this week.

For the past twenty or thirty years
I have eaten the freshest most
organic and colorful fruits and
vegetables I did not drink I
did drink one small glass of red
wine with dinner nearly every day
as suggested by The New York Times
I should have taken longer walks but
obviously I have done something wrong

I don’t mean morally or ethically or
geographically I did not live near
a nuclear graveyard or under a coal
stack nor did I allow my children
to do so I lived in a city no worse
than any other great and famous city I
lived one story above a street that led
cabs and ambulances to the local hospital
that didn’t seem so bad and was
often convenient

In any event I am
already old and therefore a little ashamed
to have written this poem full
of complaints against mortality which
biological fact I have been constructed for
to hand on to my children and grand—
children as I received it from my
dear mother and father and beloved
grandmother who all
ah if I remember it
were in great pain at leaving
and were furiously saying goodbye

An Elegy for the Self


The elegy is an elastic form. If we define it broadly, it can be any melancholy contemplation, though it is chiefly associated with a lamentation for the dead.

You could write an elegy for the lost hour while you slept last night, for instance. The hour Congress sacrifices each spring like Mayan chieftains of old giving up some poor, innocent youth to the God of Time.

But elegies to Eastern Standard Time’s lost hour would be too tongue-in-cheek for an elegy. As a rule, an elegy is serious in tone and meaning. As an example, let’s look at Linda Pastan’s short and simple poem, “Elegy,” which uses dogwoods as a metaphor for something larger (and it doesn’t get any larger than the concept of mortality).


by Linda Pastan

Our final dogwood leans
over the forest floor

offering berries
to the birds, the squirrels.

It’s a relic
of the days when dogwoods

flourished—creamy lace in April,
spilled milk in May—

their beauty delicate
but commonplace.

When I took for granted
that the world would remain

as it was, and I
would remain with it.


Seven simple couplets, with the “turn” occurring in stanza #6, where Pastan leaves discussion of the old dogwood and turns to contemplate her own mortal coil, which the reader can’t help but think once “flourished” with a “beauty delicate / but commonplace.”

The older self, like the last warrior — a dogwood leaning “over the forest floor” and, we can infer, under the slings and arrows of the decades — no longer takes life for granted. That assumption was the beautiful sin of a younger self, a girl who assumed “that the world would remain / as it was, and I / would remain with it.”

Philosophically, it’s always interesting how the “self” — or, if you prefer, a “person” — is the same yet quite different over time. The paradox of 7-year-old me vs. 70-year-old me allows poets to look through a glass darkly, as the Bible would have it, and ruminate in the form of an elegy for the self.  Ruminate and rue not only lost hours, but lost days. Ones where a version of one’s “self” is already dead and gone and worthy of a nostalgic elegy.


Memento Mori, Meet Your Poetry

memento mori

Should religion and poetry be kept in their respective corners like church and state? Yes and no.

First, let’s dispense with the “no.” The Bible is full of poetry–often beautiful poetry. One need only walk through the Song of Solomon among other books to see that. And poems abound at weddings and funerals, most held under the roof of a religious institution.

That said, modern-day poets invoking the heavens often walk a thin line. Coming across as proselytizing or didactic or moralistic can have its costs. Mary Karr is willing to take those risks, however. As someone heavily-invested in the Roman Catholic faith, she invokes religion early and often in her latest book, Tropic of Squalor.

The collection contains 16 free poems, many with religious undertones, followed by a set of 21 titled “The Less Holy Bible.”  As an exempli gratia, I give you the last poem in the book, the anchor given the task of representing the book as a whole:


Coda Toward the New New Covenant: Death Sentence
(for Father Joseph Kane)
by Mary Karr

We lean close when the dying speak
though instinct says recoil from
the decaying form, but silence
radiates off them and blooms our loud
selves out, out, out of the way, and we long
to know what from each essential
self will exhale over us, and if we every
single one of us (it would only work
if we all agreed) listened to our own
deaths growing inside us geologically
slow inching forward as the skull
will someday edge through skin, then we would
each speak only the truest lines:
I’ve always loved you.


Memento mori. In Latin, it means “Remember you must die.” In order to “memento” your “mori-ing” reader, however, your poem needs a blend of faith and harsh, physical reality.

As in the opening church and state remark, Karr walks the line here, clearly invoking faith in a greater purpose while also reminding us, through the last breaths of the dying and mention of a skull that will soon transgress the flesh that covers it, that death is not only all around us but within us, no matter how much we wish to kid ourselves by recoiling from it.

Recoil? Lean in, is the message here. Lean closer to your brothers and sisters who are dying because, if the relationship is not clear to you right now, then you’re kidding yourself, of course.

Your death sentence is in every poem you read, somewhere.

Fridays Are for Funerals


Transcribing Swedish? I’m just glad I can create an umlaut. Only 6 a.m. and that alone feels like a day’s work.

Dear Diary: Today I typed an umlaut. And went to a funeral where dead men make like gypsies reading minds. Tarots from the beyond. Or is it the mind’s heightened awareness when tuned to the frequency of death (aluminum foil coiled ’round a rabbit ear)?

Man-made music, knowing its place, plays here in a Key of Better-Not-Said, leaving the field to birds. The same hungry field with its open mouth, ready for bodies and umlauts and anything else you might feed it.

The earth. Does its hunger know any bounds? Rhetorical. And yet it is so patient. Seemingly indifferent. I can’t read it: kindly or quietly creepy?

In stanza two, I wonder about Tomas Tranströmer’s friend: “My friend’s voice lingered / in the minutes’ farthest side.” Was his friend a speaker graveside? Or the voice within, the mind reader from stanza one?

Of course, of course.

Today being Friday, you will no doubt drive home from work like T-Squared at the end of this poem: a summer day’s brilliance (despite its being fall — or spring, in the Southern hemisphere), rain, stillness. All shepherded by the moon.

Of course.


From July ’90
by Tomas Tranströmer

It was a funeral
and I sensed the dead man
was reading my thoughts
better than I could.

The organ kept quiet, birds sang.
The hole out in the blazing sun.
My friend’s voice lingered
in the minutes’ farthest side.

I drove home seen through
by the summer day’s brilliance
by rain and stillness
seen through by the moon.

Marie Howe Teaches Us How


You meet new old poets in the strangest ways. A “new old” poet is not something found in the oxymoron section of Dewey’s Decimals, but rather an established poet who is new to you (a great name for a consignment store).

My daughter, who likes to gift me poetry, gave me a copy of the new book Magdalene, by Marie Howe for my recent birthday. Ostensibly about the Biblical character, this short book, every poem double-spaced, is more about Marie Howe, mother, and the everyday questions of wonder she gets from her daughter. These questions allow her to contrast the vast questions of life with the simple, quotidian ones of childhood. The chasm is vast–and grist for Howe’s mill.

Here is a poem from Magdalene right up my wheel house (and why I have a domicile for wheels is beyond me). See if you like it, too:


October by Marie Howe


The first cold morning, the little pumpkins lined up at the corner market, and

the girl walks along Hudson Street to school and doesn’t look back.


The old sorrow blows in with the scent of wood smoke

as I walk up the five flights to our apartment and lean hard against


the broken dishwasher so it will run. Then it comes to me: Yes I’ll die,

so will everyone, so has everyone. It’s what we have in common.


And, for a moment, the sorrow ceased, and I saw that it hadn’t been sorrow

after all, but loneliness, and for a few moments, it was gone.


© Magdalene: Poems, W.W. Norton & Co., 2017


The double-spaced couplets, as is. The quotidian subject of seeing a daughter off to school and returning to an empty apartment, as is. And the swallow-me-alive topic of death, as… is? Maybe not.

Thus, the balancing act of these poems. I’m looking forward to Marie Howe’s opus. It is, as they say, in the mail and heading my way, even as I type….