Instead

Poetry / Thomas March

:: Instead ::

There is no need to note
the pointlessness of things,
the grave utilities
of chemicals—the blood—
of all those things to come—
the wracking, wretched things—
the burning and the bile—

no—someone else will know
them all eventually
and better than you know—

no—testify instead
not of the life to come
but of bacon, the taste
of fried chicken. Speak of
chocolate—of all such things
so much farther away—
if you cannot 
		          say nothing.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

This poem began in a master class with Marie Howe at Poets House in New York. We were asked to think about forms of expressing negation. These poems about what the dying require of the living were at the ready, as I had been struggling since March, when someone essential to me died of cancer, to find a way to express what I was learning about grief. I am still learning about grief. It unfolds. But I was ready, then, to consider what I had learned about how best to be useful and honest before death, by being present through the many stages of that illness.

When someone you love accepts the agonizing task of dying—by which I mean to say that they come both to face the inevitability of the death while also wrenching from each day its available hope—you realize soon enough that there is nothing more that you can do. There is an urge to be useful, to offer advice, to say the comforting thing. But there is no easy way to know what that thing is. Everyone involved is engaged in a process of release, release without relinquishing. The dying release the attachment to the physical, to the known. The living, if they can bear it, release the need to be wise, to be useful in ways that are no longer useful. And as we do these things, we struggle, too, not to relinquish the very connections that have brought us together in the first place—shared loves, shared visions, understandings.

Friendship—love—accustoms us to being of use in so many ways that are no longer helpful, from the trivial to the essential: giving advice, returning calls, validating, sharing outrage, exchanging gifts, picking up the check. There is no balancing of the ledger, once dying begins and there are no more dinners, no more birthdays, no more daily outrages, only the one. It is easy to forget that being present and attentive has been the essence of every thing we have actively done. And it is the one thing that, in the end, remains most useful.

Presence requires and bestows a grace of its own. To love is not to flinch, even and especially at the sight of horrors and heartbreaks previously unimaginable. The sooner we realize that we have no advice to offer for this thing we cannot possibly understand—that what is happening and what is to come are equally beyond our ken—the sooner we can be of use again, by acknowledging suffering, allowing questions to remain questions, bearing witness.

 

Originally from Springfield, Illinois, Thomas March is a poet, teacher, and critic who lives in New York City. He is a recent recipient of the Norma Millay Ellis Fellowship in Poetry, awarded by the Millay Colony for the Arts, and an Artist Grant from the Vermont Studio Center. Twice a finalist for the Southwest Review’s Morton Marr Poetry Prize, he is finishing his first collection of poetry, as well as a full-length play, Unbecoming. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in Assaracus, Bellevue Literary Review, Chelsea Station, Confrontation, Kin, and RHINO. His criticism has appeared in American Book Review, The Believer, New Letters, and other journals.