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.