Each year we celebrate birthdays. But there is another date that we won't, and can't celebrate - because we don't know it yet. We circle past the date we will die every year unknowingly. Isn't that strange? And each morning when we wake up, we are closer to death. We are getting closer to it every day.
I wrote a few weeks ago about time during the pandemic, and how it feels like we're losing it, watching it slip away. The struggle with mortality feels similar and inexplicably tied. We are losing. We are dying. Eventually, we will be outlived. But poems have taught me that the fear and grief that come with facing your own or someone else's mortality are natural. So is the living. So is the dying.
This week's poems confront mortality head on. They push us to not shy away from it, to instead think about and try to accept our fear. Mary Oliver challenges us - "Doesn't everything die? What is it you plan to do?" W.S. Merwin encourages us to bow, despite "not knowing to what". Marie Howe reminds us of the awareness we can bring to our own existence and those who came before us - "I am living. I remember you."
Take solace in that remembering. Don't be afraid to acknowledge death's existence. And don't be afraid to live, in spite of it.
The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Mary Oliver writes beautifully on questions of life and death. Two other poems of hers I'd recommend on this topic are When Death Comes and Starlings in Winter.
For the Anniversary of My Death
by W.S. Merwin
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
What the Living Do
by Marie Howe
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It's winter again: the sky's a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through
the open living-room windows because the heat's on too high in here and I can't turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,
I've been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.
What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.
But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:
I am living. I remember you.