Facing death wth poetry

As a young boy growing up in the provinces, I used to go to the cemetery at this time of the year, not to visit the dead, but to fly kites. There, on top of the blocks of tombs that housed the dead, I would set my frail paper kite against the chilly November wind.  In this manner, I grew up thinking of cemeteries not as grim graveyards for those who have gone but as pulsating playgrounds for the young.

I think this is very Filipino.  We take time to remember the dead, but death itself holds little meaning for us as a terminal point.  On All Saints Day (rather than on All Souls’ Day, the next day, which is really their day in the Christian calendar), we visit the dead as if they have come back precisely to commune with us.  We gather as families before their graves, bringing food, flowers, candles, and good cheer.  We reminisce about the times when they were among us.  We thank them for their love and what they have done for us.  We ask for their forgiveness and continuing guidance.  But, though we may know that where they are is where we ourselves are going, the thought fails to dismay us.  We seldom, if at all, think of our own death, and of what it may mean for the way we should live.

In Betis Pampanga, where I grew up, I vividly remember the dictum inscribed on the portal of the cemetery: “Acu ngeni, ica bucas” (rough translation: “Me today, you tomorrow”). I used to think it was a sick joke, meant to provoke laughter rather than contemplation.  Only much later in life, long after I have stopped flying kites, did I realize the profundity of this blunt message. Perhaps I might have lived differently if I had paid more heed to it then; I don’t know.  Poets and philosophers have rendered the message in other ways, but its meaning is the same: no one lives forever.  There is no comfort here, only a grim reminder that this is where it all ends.

No one perhaps has put this idea as ironically and as beautifully as the English poet Philip Larkin:

“The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
— The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always.  Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,


No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.”

Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

In the months just before he died from an inoperable cancer of the pancreas, my friend, the philosopher Richard Rorty, was asked whether he had found his thoughts slowly turning towards religion. Rorty, an agnostic, emphatically said no.  But, he hastened to add, “neither the philosophy I had written nor that which I had read seemed to have any particular bearing on my situation.”  Interestingly, he had found comfort in poetry instead.  From memory, almost as if in prayer, he would recite the following lines from Algernon Swinburne, the Victorian poet:

“We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river Winds somewhere safe to sea.”
And from Walter Savage Landor:
“Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life,
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.”

There are no special truths in these “old chestnuts”, as Rorty calls them, that had not been more fully expressed in prose by philosophers like Heidegger.  But, to be able to recite these meant a lot to him during particular moments of his life.  “I would have lived more fully if  had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts – just as I would have if I had made more close friends.  Cultures with richer vocabularies are more fully human – farther removed from the beasts – than those with poorer ones; individual men and women are more fully human when their memories are amply stocked with verse.”

I often visit the graves of my parents, usually for no special reason. In the past, I would find myself mumbling prayers I had learned as a child, and telling them what I have been up to.  Later in life, I would simply gaze at the dates of their deaths, wondering how much time I have before I join them, and what else I need to do to complete my life.

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