The End of the Line
Matters of Life and Death in the April 2014 Poetry
“I’ve been thinking about the end of the world for as long as I’ve been in it,” writes Michael Klein in the April 2014 Poetry. The poets he quotes in his essay, “Risk Delight,” have been thinking about it too: Sharon Olds describes a nuclear bomb as a “gold ball, large as a giant / planet starting to lift up over ours”; for Dana Levin, the apocalypse includes “the death of ice, of food, of space, what / we call Doom.”
One drowned in a swimming pool.
One removed his shoes
and yearned off a bridge. One lives
with Alzheimer’s in a state facility, spittle
in his white beard. It
turns out words are no help.
By accident or on purpose, quick or slow—disaster can take limitless forms. “Words are no help”: the phrase suggests that poems cannot protect their creators from tragic ends, and that Addonizio’s own poems will be powerless to prevent her end.
Yet if poems can’t extend the lives of their writers, they can at least grant immortality to their characters. In “Lilac Field,” Dorothea Lasky mentions “conversation / With the undead,” and in two poems, Sarah Lindsay shares such conversations with us. Unlike Addonizio’s nameless poets, who suffer terrible yet familiar demises, Lindsay’s speakers die strangely and spectacularly. In “Rain of Statues,” soldiers sailing home from a long-ago war meet this unfortunate fate:
The thrashing storm
that caught us cracked the hulls
and made us offerings to the sea floor —
a rain of statues, gold, and men.
Released from service,
done with war,
the crash and hiss muted,
we fell through streams of creatures
whose lives were their purpose...................................................
[The statues’] faces, wings, and limbs
lie here with our sanded bones
and motionless devices.
Little crabs attempt to don rings
set with agate and amethyst,
and many an octopus,
seeking an hour of rest,
finds shelter in our brain-cases.
So we are still of use.
“Released from service, / done with war,” the soldiers find themselves subject to an even greater violence: the storm that sends them to the bottom of the sea, enlisting them in its own service as “offerings.” And there they continue to be “of use,” though not to their general, who’s resting on land—their skulls shelter octopi who also want to “rest.” The only ones not resting, it seems, are the drowned soldiers, who continue to think and articulate, and to embrace their helpfulness. For these devoted troops, the rules of life apply even after death.
Yet a sea change has occurred: the soldiers have turned into skeletons; their bones are “sanded,” their devices “motionless.” If the statues that tumbled down with them were built to resemble men, the men—eroded and still—now resemble statues. (For a poem that describes a similar scene, see John Ciardi’s “Elegy for a Cave Full of Bones,” which portrays the aftermath of the Battle of Saipan in World War Two.)
“Attack Underground” chronicles a similarly ill-fated military campaign, one that leads its men below the earth rather than the sea. These soldiers, too, find themselves deserted by their leader, who assigns them the task of digging a tunnel to an enemy fort. But their opponents toss hives of bees into the tunnel, explains the stoic speaker, followed by weasels and foxes. Then, he adds ominously, he “heard, more than saw, the other beasts”:
A wolf began my death.
I lay in men’s and weasels’ blood
and heard the body
that dropped at my side
ask, What barbarian thought to make
of thoughtless creatures weapons of war?
But a flung torch showed me the face
of a bear that said nothing, and died.
Then came the boar.
Here, as in “Rain of Statues,” a dead man speaks—and hears, or thinks he hears, someone else speaking. But his comrade turns out to be a bear. This misunderstanding marks just one example of the poem’s blurring between humans and beasts: men’s blood mingles with weasels’; men, too, are “creatures” made “weapons of war”; animals serve as proxies for the opposing army; men are burrowing into dirt like beasts, and they die like beasts, too, victims of teeth and claws.
What’s the effect of hearing dead men speak in Lindsay’s poems? Is it a comforting rebuttal of the finality of death, or a haunting testimony to how terrible death can be? Or could it be both?
Like “Rain of Statues,” “Attack Underground” brings to mind an earlier poem. Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting” also finds a dead soldier beneath the earth, listening to surreal speech: the account of the man he killed the day before. “I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned / Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed,” the soldier says. “I parried; but my hands were loath and cold. / Let us sleep now." The strange soldier’s hands were cold even when he was alive; the speaker frowns the same way before and after death. Like Lindsay’s narrators, these soldiers have survived their demises fairly intact. But for them, another, more merciful end is near: the speaking soldier bids them sleep, and they find rest at last.