On Bearing the Pall

ImageIt occurs to me that being a pallbearer is one of the few tasks in the modern world that everyone understands is best left to the men. Women have achieved unprecedented parity in nearly every field of human endeavor (which is, by and large, a good thing), but when it comes to shouldering dead weight, men still are typically the ones who get the nod.

First of all, there’s the weight itself. Even if distributed among six, it still is nothing to sneeze at. I’ve known women who could lift their fair share of weight (my wife has a tendency to push all the furniture around a given room every eight months or so, only to decide she liked it best where it started), but should they have to? Men are typically more advanced in the brawn category, even in our soft, couch-sitting, high-fructose-corn-syrup-fed modern age. That physical strength still gets used (or, sadly, misused) on occasion, but there’s far less scope and call for it than there used to be. Most of us have jobs that involve pressing buttons or waiting on technology, rather than doing the work ourselves. Traditionally “manly” callings become less so all the time — even the military is being remade to reflect societal changes. (Whether or not you agree that’s a good thing is a different conversation.)

Then there’s the distance that weight must be carried — it must be reckoned with, even if the pain you might feel as a pallbearer might be more in your forearm muscles than in your heart (and I’ve had both). Just a short jaunt down the center aisle of a church and out the door to the hearse can often seem longer while carrying that weight (both kinds). And then you get to the cemetery, where the ground might be muddy, the wind cold and in your face, or the sun hot, burning down on your bare neck, the footing rutted or uneven, but yet you must plow steadily on, as the departed is borne to his or her last resting place. They sail on, tranquil as a ship, while you grunt and might begin to break a bit of a sweat underneath the collar of your dress shirt. (I actually heard a funeral director utter the phrase, “Grandma was not a big lady”, once while funeral arrangements were being made. Under different circumstances, I would have chuckled out loud.)

Yet we are glad to do it. It’s often the last thing, one last gesture, we can give the departed themselves, as our lives bob along in time’s wake and we are pulled ever further from the memory of them. Thomas Lynch, undertaker and author, once wrote of grief as being full-body work. It must involve all your large muscles in order to truly be put behind you, was his thinking. As one who has borne the pall in the past, I would tend to agree with him. Few duties in the modern world are as loaded with symbolic importance, yet still as practical and useful, as being a pallbearer. Here’s to doing a good job at carrying out the dead, and to not having to do it too often.


I go to pieces.

Patsy Cline is primo late-nite music — whether or not you have a bottle at your elbow. The way she sings every note convinces you that she’s lived everything she sings about personally — it never really enters our minds that perhaps she’s just putting on a persona for a song. Nuh uh. She’s been there, done that, lived through it all — tearstains on the pillow, cheating hearts, long midnight walks, and all.

Whenever I listen to Patsy Cline, I picture a woman who’s on the verge of cracking, someone who’s barely holding it together as a functioning human being and for whom the wrong word will bring all her pain and hurt and confusion flooding into the world very publicly, but yet someone who paints on her lipstick, fixes her mascara, takes a deep breath, and keeps it together if not for the rest of the day, at least for an hour. Her makeup, the face she presents to the world, is just a very thin veneer that’s covering over the fault lines that are threatening to split apart her personality — all the tragedies, heartache, and rejection she’s endured, and will still endure. But she lifts her chin and does the hardest thing of all — she goes out and faces the world. She tries again tomorrow. I don’t know if that’s actually present in her music (or the fact that I hear it there says more about me than about her), but I admire that.

It’s quite an accomplishment to sound as if you’re about ten minutes from jumping off a bridge, on the one hand — so utterly and thoroughly despairing — and yet still be elegant and poised, never mawkish, insincere, or histrionic. Part of it is Cline’s voice. Good gracious, that voice. So rich and resonant, I get chills up my spine every single time she crescendoes in “I Go to Pieces”…Every. Single. Time.

I know the songs were recorded at different times, but her “12 Greatest Hits” is practically a concept album when you listen to it — watching her life fall apart by stages, as the wheels come off in slow motion. Only “Back in Baby’s Arms” is entirely upbeat and positive, and we almost wince, feeling sorry for how happy she is, knowing it won’t last (the poor fool). And sure enough, it goes downhill from there.

Perhaps it bottoms out on “Why Can’t He Be You”. She has a man who is good to her, who loves her even; she has a man who she is deeply in love with. Problem is, it’s not the same guy. The song is one great big “if only” — if only the man who loves me that I’m with would be you, without your boorish habits, cold arrogance, and totally self-centered worldview. If only the one I loved so consumingly I almost feel sick was actually good enough to love me back. Yeah, that’s all it would take to make her happy. You feel her sense of isolation inside her own head and heart, the hopeless frozen feeling that if the slightest thing changes or the slightest word about her true feelings will be whispered, it would cause the world to shatter into a million pieces. She sounds like a woman about to have a violent mental break with reality, with no way out — except the impossible. “Why can’t he be you?” Does that not sound like a recipe custom-made for a lifetime of the most exquisite, soul-rending unhappiness? And all without having her class or her poise drained out of her. “She’s Got You” is the same sort of song, only switched around.

It’s a pity that Patsy Cline died so young. Just imagine the music she could have gone on to make. Even just her album “12 Greatest Hits” (the only one of hers I happen to have) is enough to swim in, dissect, ponder for years. It transcends mere pop music to speak something universal that touches all of us at some point, if we are fortunate — or unfortunate — enough. Enjoy the clip and make sure to toss back a shot of something strong, or doff your cowboy hat, to Patsy Cline – a true original.

Hot and cold at the same time

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?

– Emily Dickinson

Ladies and gentlemen, now I know what Emily Dickinson means here. It had been a theoretical sensation up to this point, merely abstract, something that I thought I might feel someday — but now I have felt it, and I know exactly what she’s talking about.

I’ve been working at reading poetry in a (somewhat) more dedicated fashion for the past few months, and I finally found a poet who took my head off: Sappho. Her writing has the clarity and jolt of the best moonshine, eloquence aplenty, and a direct emotional connection. She just might be my new favorite poet. I immediately inter-library-loaned a volume of her work, and will devour it when it arrives. This is poetry the way people always talk about it. Even in the modern world, there’s still a place for “the best words in the best order” — for universal human experiences distilled into unforgettable verse that changes you. Sappho knew what that feeling was like, too, and even though she was very different than I am – female vs. male, (apparently) not entirely straight vs. definitely straight, ancient Greek vs. modern American — I can still appreciate her poetry and the effects it has. And they may have found more of her stuff! Sappho, this one’s for you…and us:

Like the very gods in my sight is he who
sits where he can look in your eyes, who listens
close to you, to hear the soft voice, its sweetness
murmur in love and

laughter, all for him. But it breaks my spirit;
underneath my breast all the heart is shaken.
Let me only glance where you are, the voice dies,
I can say nothing,

but my lips are stricken to silence, under-
neath my skin the tenuous flame suffuses;
nothing shows in front of my eyes, my ears are
muted in thunder.

And the sweat breaks running upon me, fever
shakes my body, paler I turn than grass is;
I can feel that I have been changed, I feel that
death has come near me.

(from “Greek Lyrics”, p.25, trans. Richmond Lattimore, 1955, U. of Chicago.)

Lou Reed died today.

Lou Reed died today. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He was among the select pantheon of rock-&-roll who were meant to be around forever. Of course, we all eventually go — Ian Curtis, Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer, Mark Sandman, John Lennon, all of us — but you slip into a habit of mind of thinking they’ll live forever. Mainly because their music and the effect it has on you seems so eternal, so lasting. When another living legend is no longer living, out of the blue, the light seems to dim a little for the rest of us. The world seems suddenly smaller and…lesser, somehow, for not having luminaries like Lou Reed in it, when not so long ago they were still with us. So here’s to the music, while it lasts…before the silence returns.

Violence, savagery, and great beauty: One good paragraph #5

I’ve been reading the Iliad lately. I started it a while ago, then got distracted by other things, and only recently picked it back up again. It’s good stuff. There’s no better way to start your day than by reading about Greek and Trojan warriors slaughtering each other. (Just kidding, but it does make for a change from the daily routine, if nothing else.) Reading about heroism, honor, courage can inspire one in daily life, even if your life isn’t as dramatic as theirs was. One can very definitely tell that the Iliad came from an earlier time in human history — one far less complicated, surface-obsessed, yet still treacherous and amoral. We have perhaps sunk farther down than they, who organized their lives around duty and honor. I know that the Iliad is an epic poem and not real life, but one cannot shake the feeling that people in former times knew more about living — really living — than we do now.

From an artistic standpoint, the Iliad is absolutely necessary reading. Homer is a master of comparison, simile, and metaphor, and the pictures he paints with his words make one stop and just sit and admire at times. His assured mastery of his form is noteworthy, too. He knows just how to get the effect he wants within the conventions of his form. Once you become used to the stylized, conventionalized phrasing he employs, that (to us) unnatural way of speaking fades from attention, and all that’s left is the gripping artistry, the cinematic sweep of the story, the stately grief and grand rage of the combatants and those left behind, and the riveting, gratuitous violence.

The Iliad of course has more than one good paragraph; the whole thing is good! That’s why it’s a stone-cold classic still. This is one of numerous quotes from the Iliad that I keep returning to, but it stands out for me because of the combinations and elaboration of the imagery. This comes from Book 16, lines 455-465 in Robert Fagles’ superlative translation. Enjoy:

And all in an onrush dark as autumn days

when the whole earth flattens black beneath a gale,

when Zeus flings down his pelting, punishing rains –

up in arms, furious, storming against those men

who brawl in the courts and render crooked judgments,

men who throw all rights to the wind with no regard

for the vengeful eyes of the gods – so all their rivers

crest into flooded spate, ravines overflowing cut the hilltops

off into lonely islands, the roaring flood tide rolling down

to the storm-tossed sea, headlong down from the foothills

washes away the good plowed work of men –

Rampaging so,

the gasping Trojan war-teams hurtled on.


Once I started writing poetry because I wanted to put the words together right. This was a few years ago (almost ten, in fact…time flies faster than we think it does, or we move slower than time), but I left off doing it and I shouldn’t have. I showed a few of my poems to someone I trusted, and the response was underwhelming, let’s just say, not what I expected or perhaps wanted, and so I stopped. It’s not her fault — that’s just the way she is, and she couldn’t possibly have guessed what I felt was the right response in that situation. I still love her very dearly, and she supports me in a myriad of other ways.

Rather, the fault was mine in quitting out too soon. I let it lie and went on to other things. I wrote in my journal, I wrote other things in which my personality shone through (albeit weakly, obliquely, like late winter sunlight through dirty windows), but not poetry. Just recently I took it up again. I figured, if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly, and if I want to write poetry, why not just write poetry? What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll produce some bad poetry? Heaven knows there’s been enough of that in the world, and if I add to its store, there will not be an end of it after I’m gone. And if I produce something good? Then it will have been worth it. Even if I don’t produce anything anyone wants to read, I’ll still have learned and grown as a person, as a writer, as a mover and shaper of words. I’ll have grown my powers of expression and gained clarity and insight into myself and the world around me. So why not?

So here and now, I give notice that I won’t quit. I’ll keep at it, labor over it, learn some craft and some art, put some sweat and some elbow grease into it; invest time, thought, heart, and desire, make something that I’m proud to call my own, something that someone might want to read. I will continue to collect words, to focus, to draw together my scattered heedlessly flung thoughts and hone them into slivers and shards of poetic genius; hammer and saw and cut and nail, again and again, until the structure takes shape and solid form; take dead aim and draw the bow and release, again and again — until I start to get it right. Even if it’s for no one else, this is for me, so I can become part of what I want to be — a poet, someone genuinely recognized for the quality of his words. I won’t make the mistake of waiting too long on another’s opinion again. I’ve got to keep moving. I’ve lost so much time already.

Happy birthday, Robert Graves

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite poets, Robert Graves. He was born in London in 1895. His passion was poetry, but he wrote novels to support himself and said: “Prose books are the show dogs I breed and sell to support my cat.” He wrote historical novels such as I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1934). (I was introduced to these by Doc Ziebell, my superlative high school history teacher.) He also penned a memoir about WWI, Goodbye to All That (1929), in addition to a lot of other good stuff.

One of the most inspiring things I remember reading that Robert Graves ever said — I think it was in Goodbye to All That — was when he was describing his life as a father with young children. He says that he took care of them quite often, but that even with the demands on his time and attention that small children (deservedly) bring, he still found time to write. He would rise before they were awake in the mornings, and write poetry then, before the day’s work began. “If it matters to you, you find time for it,” he said simply — and that has stuck with me ever since. That statement of Graves’ has motivated me to find proper time for my devotional life, for exercise, and for my family. That idea has guided me and made me a better person. I don’t think I would have accomplished nearly as much as I have, were it not for that (and the help of my wife, as chief among others, but that’s another topic for another time.)

“If it matters to you, you find time for it.” His poetry helped me focus on what really matters to me, and it helped me trust myself and my own instincts. He gave me permission to entertain doubts and “what-ifs”, and by doing so their power over me dissolved. I owe him a debt for that. That’s the power of poetry — it lives on long after we do, and who knows who will be affected by it one day. So go on; pick up your pen; add something to the wide river of words that is all poetry. You never who you’ll help or turn around.

(ht:writer’s almanac)