"Death is what gets poets up in the morning." - Billy Collins
Like many others in their early 50s, I found myself taking on the role of advocate as I walked my mother through a divorce, bankruptcy, breast cancer, dementia, apartment downsizing, assisted living and, eventually, extended care. Overwhelmed, I began to feel the loss of my own youth and the sense that time was passing me by.
During those five years with Mom, I wrote my first poem, partly as a means to relieve stress and find something of my own. As inexperienced as I was, this poem brought comfort to a friend who was dying of cancer. I had touched on the loneliness felt by those who are facing the end of life.
With the help of a mentor, I began to study and write my way through my mother's mental and physical decline as well as through my own sense of loneliness and isolation. It became a voyage of discovery that offered insights into my mother's life and mine as I explored the many unasked questions of my childhood.
Within a year of her passing I would lose my father and my sister-in-law, and further down the road my sister and brother, leaving me the last of our family. This time I was aware of the power of poetry; its ability to raise consciousness and help us feel connected to something larger than ourselves through universal experiences.
I was particularly drawn to the Japanese genre. Like haiku, many of my poems reflect the impermanence of life through the passage of the seasons.
While our Western culture relieves physical suffering, we are hesitant when it comes to talking about death, unlike the Japanese culture with its centuries-old custom of writing "jisei" - death poems written prior to death, often during one's last lucid moments.
One would expect death poems to be maudlin, yet they are not. They recognize life as it is, and as we often say, the truth sets us free.
Here are two examples of Japanese death poems:
- at peace,/above my sickness/summer smolders (Hakusetzu, 1735)
- cicada shell:/little did I know/it was my life (Shuho, 1767)
Contemporary poets today, including me, often write a death poem to mark the passing of a friend. Some of us have written our own.
While we know that poetry can help with memorization, a useful skill at any age, studies show that it is also beneficial to depression, to Alzheimer's patients, and patients facing the end of life.
As I approach my seventh decade, I realize how much more I was able to offer my sister in her last days, through the insights I gained by reading and writing poetry, than I was able to offer my mom. Being able to discuss the end of life brought comfort and closeness to us both.
Was it only last May
I laid purple iris
beside your bed?
your life purled
like last-leaf fall.
I dressed you
in white lace and lawn
the burn to ash -
but, I scattered you
as you wished.
Now, there is this
of iris; unpicked
for she who loved apricot -
the color, the bloom
and the way the fruit
clung lightly to the stone
dances over a gift
of greengage plums -
even at times of grieving
little flickers of joy
YES, THIS TOO
yes, this too
could be my life -
a few stones
mixed with bright bits of glass
left scattered on a grave
- "Japanese Death Poems," compiled and introduced by Yoel Hoffman.
- "Dreams Wander On: Contemporary Poems of Death Awareness," by Robert Epstein.
- "The Temple Bell Stops: Contemporary Poems of Grief, Loss and Change," edited by Robert Epstein.
- "Poets Gone Wild: An Internet Anthology," from Wild Poetry Press.
- "In the Company of Crows: Haiku and Tanka Between the Tides," by Carole MacRury.
- "The Tang of Nasturtiums," online e-book by Carole MacRury.
Carole MacRury, a writer and photographer, lives in Point Roberts.