Guest poem sent in by Katherine E. Hudson
(Poem #1376) When Death Comes
When death comes like the hungry bear in autumn; when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse to buy me, and snaps the purse shut; when death comes like the measle-pox: when death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades, I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness? And therefore I look upon everything as a brotherhood and a sisterhood, and I look upon time as no more than an idea, and I consider eternity as another possibility, and I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular, and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, tending, as all music does, toward silence, and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth. When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. When it's over, I don't want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
I've been somewhat surprised so few of Mary Oliver's poems have been included in the Minstrels' archive, as I have found her a revelation and a delight among contemporary poets. I suppose that's because she addresses matters that engage my interest and does so with language that is both ordinary and imaginative. She has a unique ability to convey the wonder and awe the natural world and its denizens can evoke, usually using rather simple language to do it, though this poem doesn't really illustrate that ability. Nonetheless, "the bride married to amazement" and "the bridegroom, taking the world into [his] arms," firmly link this poem to others in which Oliver more obviously celebrates the natural world. The catalog of images at the beginning of this poem reminds me of the various forms of death identified by Gerard Manley Hopkins at the beginning of "Part the Second" of The Wreck of the Deutschland: "'Some find me a sword; some/The flange and the rail; flame,/Fang, or flood,' goes Death on a drum/And storms bugle his fame." But Hopkins' list is rather flatly concrete, while Oliver's imagery is forceful and evocative, suggesting the suddenness with which death may come (the snapping shut of the purse), its implacability (the hungry bear), the pain and disgust (the measle-pox), and fear (the iceberg between the shoulders--oooh, I like that one!) that may accompany it. [By the way, don't anybody think I'm dissing Hopkins, who is one of my favorite poets; and The Deutschland is a powerful poem, I think--a pity it's probably too long for the Minstrels' archive.] But my fondness for Oliver's poetry isn't based in analysis--she moves me, consistently and deeply. And my desire for that kind of experience is why I signed up for the Minstrels' list. Only a few poems I've seen so far have given me the charge only good poetry can (The Icelandic Language was one)--but that's not a problem: how many highs a week can a person stand, anyway? And I'm seeing poems I would otherwise never encounter. I thank you very much indeed for your service and thank my fellow list-members for their contributions and insights. Katherine Hudson