I try not to think about dying much.
Whenever I do, naive as it may be, I dismiss it as something that happens to other people, usually in very spectacular ways. A longago plague sweeps through eastern Europe. A car bomb explodes in a crowded bazaar. A distraught lover climbs over a rail and leaps into the drink. Splashy demises always seem so far away, so detached from the realm.
Then there's what I consider "regular" dying, which pretty much consists of extremely old people who smile in their sleep and just drift away..or obscenely attractive people with broken hearts, dwindling to mere air, surrounded by a loving beside circle of family and friends. This type of dying is usually accompanied by music.
I never think of poets succumbing. I can't wrap my head around notebooks of unfinished stanzas, empty stages, slim volumes with blank pages. The poets I grew up with and around are so utterly necessary, so vital. I'm not sure how I'd process my life without their help. I never thought I'd have to.
But lately poets have been dying, just like ordinary people.
Phebus Etienne, the warm, effusive sister to everyone. Sekou Sundiata, fiery and unflinching lyricist. And just this past weekend, Yictove, stalwart of the Knitting Factory and community firebrand. No matter how many times it happens, it jolts. That much throat, no longer here. No longer here.
A month or so ago, I was doing at residency at a middle school here in Westchester. During a break in the middle of the day, I came home to have lunch. While I was having my sandwich, I felt a twitching pain just above my left breast. At first I told myself that it was the kind of pain that results from the inadvertent stretching of something, but its dogged persistence worried me. I went to a doctor and the doctor called an ambulance, and before I knew what was happening, I was hurtling down Rt. 9 through Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow and Ossining and Briarcliff Manor to the emergency room, where I was thoroughly convinced I would die.
I wondered what I would leave behind. Did those poems, those lovingly crafted indy press offerings mean anything beside the paper they were printed on? Would I be, as I predicted in one poem, one of those "...shamed by the tiny blips
we’d leave behind/ notebooks of indecipherable stanzas, self-published tomes,/ blurry VHS tapes of ourselves reading to ourselves"?
How do you decide if your mark on the world is enough of a mark? If you're a poet, what legacy is enough? A book? A number of books? An award or two? The fact that someone somewhere calls you "teacher"? A consistent present in the glitzy, heavily-funded lit mags? A couple of National Poetry Slam championships? A bundle of cash rewarding you for a lifetime body of work? A kid who picks up your book and starts writing because she or he can't help it? A teacher, a secretary, a pump jockey, an ex-con who reads or hears you and realizes a throat they never knew?
Phebus, Sekou, Yictove. You didn't stop doing what you do. And look at all these unfolding worlds you've left us, all this rhythm and challenge and answer. Thank you for reminding me to forge something, however small, that will last.
Thank you for reminding me that poets die.
Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American...