Words of the Dead

By Andy Mitchell

One of my favorite features of Poetry, the magazine, is that it showcases poems of recently deceased poets whose work has appeared in past issues. On the insides of the front and back covers, in white script on colored paper, one of each departed poet’s works is reprinted from a former issue. In some cases the featured poem is recent; other times it might be decades-old. In either case the poem is usually relevant to the author’s passing. In the May 2013 issue, David Hernández is remembered with just two of his own lines: “Faith is a stray pet that will somehow/find you again.”

Words of the dead take on more significance than they did while the writers were still alive. Knowing the writer will not write another word imbues those he or she has written with a heightened importance and poignancy. Their words are all that is left of them.

I think that’s why dead writers attain elevated statures after they’re gone. Plus, they’re no longer around to demystify their legends. The accumulation of all their deeds and misdeeds have been etched into erected stone bearing their names. As soon as their bodies have gone cold their reality begins to morph into myth. They are no longer here to keep it real.  In other words, we remember what we want of their disposable acts, and throw the rest away.

But their words cannot be dismissed. They outlive their actions. Words are their eternal hereafter. And they are likewise for those about whom they wrote. Consider none other than Shakespeare’s thoughts on this very matter. Undoubtedly you will recognize the first two lines of his famous Sonnet 18. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” But what about the last two lines? “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Sonnet 55 begins, “Not marble nor the gilded monuments/Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme…” Quite a boast. But, hey, it’s freakin’ Shakespeare, not just some guy that posts his poetry on Facebook. What’s more, he was dead right. This very powerful rhyme has outlived quite a lot of things in 400 years(!)

But you don’t have to hail from Stratford-upon-Avon in order for your words to live on. You just have to write them down. Perhaps that’s why I’ve written so much about my dad and mother-in-law. It’s my way of keeping them alive, if only on the page. Each word clarifies a memory, bringing it into focus. I wrote somewhere in one of my laments for Didi (Jenn’s mom) that cemeteries provide a place to concentrate the spirit. Sounds a bit hooey, but if you know me, you know I don’t do hooey. What I mean is that a grave site is a place of dust and bone. That’s really all that’s there, beyond the stones and the nicely maintained grass. But it’s where we go to remember, to honor, to “pay our respects.” I also go to a blank white page to remember, to honor. But I don’t take flowers to pay my respects. I take my pen.    

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