The great cemeteries around London are its most peaceful feature, its finest repository of woodland and wildlife – as well as offering a curious insight into the Victorian Way of Death. This one was at Beckenham.
ONE LAST TIME
I thought, before they cut her phone off,
I might leave a last message.
One for the ether: one that not a soul
Would ever hear. “Goodbye, old girl.
I wish you well.”
It grieves me that she fades. I am dismayed
That nothing can be done – now she has gone
Where all our roads converge; or rather,
Where they entrail themselves.
There you find the foetid knot
That poisons all our purposes,
Debasing them, rendering them baseless,
Making a cruelty of our consciousness.
There’s no nobility to old age. There is no self at all.
No heroism, surely, amongst those who are dying:
Heroics imply choice, not helplessness.
Instead, declining life is a quest for salvage
Against inevitable shipwreck: doing what can be
Done, saving what can be saved, before one founders.
They know, of course. The dying choose their words
To please us, then they doze. Whose bedside manner
Is that? The dying are there for us: writing off debts
That we cannot repay, words it is too late for us to say,
Absorbing our composure, our denial, and the lies of our
Upright, grown-up lives – in gentler, distant eyes.
I didn’t make my call. I knew it was in vain,
But that’s not vanity. It was, maybe, my fear
Of (if engineers checked the line, and found me on it)
Making a fool of myself (for so my petty suburbanite’s
Shame forced me to reason) but, worse:
What if the number were already dead
Giving me the infinite rebuttal of a numb tone?
Look at the set of a dead face.
Its muscles smoothed, its profile young again.
They say repose has brought it peace, but
That’s not so. Listen, and sense instead
The silence of oblivion, the null of longest night,
The sigh of stars, like candles, going out.
MY MOTHER’S DEATH
My mother, as usual, judged it best.
The day before her funeral, in a gibberish of legs,
A fly refused to die on her bathroom sill.
Out of its time, come February, but still
Raging against the dying of its light;
My mother’s house (corporeal husk of one now cool to the
Touch) retained its warmth: my destination, in a six-hour
Journey into loneliness. My plan had been: she might be
Ashamed to die, if I stayed camped beside the hospital bed
Or else she might draw energy
From me, by some osmosis, fanciful or futile – anyway,
It didn’t happen. She chose her moment
(Waiting until, for an instant, I’d slipped aside)
And then she slipped away herself.
“Peaceful,” one’s supposed to say; though I should
Call it moribund. I knew I’d seen her scratch, and moan,
Cognizant, at least of her distress, struggling to be comfy:
Until, in the wingbeat of an insect, nature betrayed her.
Michelangelo, it was, who said that death meant nothing.
It had no hold, so long as we held on
In the mind’s eye of the living. But it is love
That has no span, no currency, beyond an extant memory.
Each age recedes beyond remembrance
And our maimed minds are all that’s left for reckoning.
Oh yes, let’s cling to the detritus of forfeited lives
Like a lost child. Let’s hoard the memories, the papers
And pictures yellowed as pulled teeth. Let’s fight,
As an infant fights off sleep, and frightful dreams – thinking
We might forestall time’s withering recession.
You’ll tell me: Death is the hard edge
That whets a life, and hones it into shape.
Tell me how a dozen figures stand behind each living face:
How, in our dust, an unborn forest lies asleep.
Tell me of death’s necessity, how winter must
Precede each spring; say, Let’s be grateful for
(However briefly) sentience can rise above
This surge of all-enveloping darkness:
Yet I have lost my dearest friend,
The warm spark at my core is up in smoke.
I shiver with the cold, the cold of bones.