Thursday, June 11th, 2009...10:40 am

todd moore | fighting death for the poem

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Every time I write something Death sits in the corner and watches. He is the consummate voyeur. Maybe he thinks he’s putting one over on me, but I know he’s there. He sits next to a cascade of empty boxes near my book filled closet. He would chew his nails if he could but in the absence of nails he chews the bone tips of his fingers. I can hear them click. He wants me to listen. This is Death’s music, his aria of stutter.

He knows when I am writing a poem, he can smell it. What happens is that the human body gives off an odor of provocative skin and quick electricity when it’s involved in the creative process. It can’t be helped. When Edward Hopper was painting NIGHTHAWKS Death tried to convince Hopper to put him in the picture. But Hopper resisted, though it made no difference. Death is one of the hats in the painting.

When Edvard Munch was painting THE SCREAM Death wanted Munch to make him the screamer and you can see how well Death succeeded. When Van Gogh painted that series of self portraits on cardboard Death kept trying to crawl beneath Van Gogh’s tortured face and the V man had to keep slapping new layers of paint across bones. He thought it would help, the effort was futile. When Picasso was painting GUERNICA Death got into the painting by becoming the thing that is flying out of the horse’s mouth. This is Death’s job. It’s the kind of work that he can get into.

That last paragraph of THE TRIAL where the two killers are getting ready to murder Joseph K, this is where Death has jumped into the novel. Death had been after Kafka for weeks to put him into the book. The way he does it is through dreams. He comes at you in nightmares and he doesn’t stop until you give in. Or, at least until some arrangement has been made. In Kafka’s case, he allowed death to bifurcate, to become the two killers wearing the same vacant faces. And, in some translations Death takes turns with himself when it comes to plunging the knife into Joseph K’s heart. And, sometimes Death is also the knife and the air around the wound.

Death’s argument for getting himself into books is that the story is nothing without his being in it. It’s like seasoning the meat. But Death didn’t really want to be a major character. He knows that he can’t carry a story all by himself. Instead, he’d rather be someone minor and nameless and more often than not with nothing to say. Death is the black paint in Goya’s nightmare paintings. Death is the hiss the words get when Sylvia Plath reads Daddy. The sound scorches him all the way through and he has to slough off all the burnt parts.

Death will do anything to get into a poem. He bribed Kell Robertson and Charles Bukowski with dream six packs of beer to be part of their poems. He kissed Frank Stanford on the mouth and then frenched him as a bonus for writing Death And The Arkansas River and the taste of Death’s kiss was all chocolate and ashes. He’d give you a blowjob if you wanted it but it would have to be in some sex fantasy nightmare Death wants you to eat. He gave William S. Burroughs a special dream revolver for having written NAKED LUNCH and then letting Death do some of Doctor Benway’s lines. He gave Lorca complete access to the Duende knowing full well that Lorca had to somehow make him a major player, a demon child, a cyanide wind. It was either that or kiss the theory goodbye. And, as for Death, he wasn’t all that sure that he liked the deal afterward because he was so visible in the essay. But he had no choice in the matter. Still, that was okay because Death knew he’d also be one of the bullets that would ultimately finish Lorca off later. It almost made Death laugh to think bang bang, you’re dead.

In THE STRANGER, that scene where Meursault shoots the Arab, Death is the sun. At the end of FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, Death is the machine gun. In THE GREAT GATSBY when Gatsby is shot and falls into the swimming pool, Death is the black hole in the water. When Judge Holden kills the kid with his bare hands in the outhouse at the end of BLOOD MERIDIAN, Death hides in the shit.

You may think you know where Death is in any given story, poem, or novel, but you don’t. Death is the ultimate trickster, the absolute best shape shifter ever. In MOBY DICK he starts off as one of Queequeg’s tattoos. Then he changes to one of Daggoo’s shadows. Then he turns into St. Elmo’s fire. Then he becomes the rope lashing Ahab to the whale. And, this may happen just that way the first time you read through the book. But if you try reading it again, Death may become a whole new cluster of signs and shapes. Death never inhabits the same metaphor twice.

In a dream Death promised Ed Dorn he’d stay out of GUNSLINGER, then became the Gunslinger’s pair of leather encased hands. Death knows that you can’t create a gunslinger unless he has hands. Death knows he has Dorn where he wants him. Death’s laugh goes up in the smoke.

In The 13th Horse Song of Frank Mitchell Death is the shadow of the prayerstick as it strikes the ground. In Song Of Myself, Death waits under Walt Whitman’s right shoe. In a recent Dennis Gulling poem Death is a piece of lint resting on a sawed off shotgun barrel. In John Yamrus’ poem At The Funeral, Death is the ring missing from the corpse’s hand. In Tony Moffeit’s BLUES FOR BILLY THE KID Death has painted himself all over with red chile.

Death may remain the same thing in a poem or a novel or a story or he may change from object to object. Death likes to skip around. You think you have him and you don’t. Death is a literature of motion, blur, confusion, and flow. Death yearns for the sense of flux in Thomas McGrath’s LETTER TO AN IMAGINARY FRIEND, is almost sick with a longing for dust in THE WASTE LAND. Death is not so much the bridge in Hart Crane’s THE BRIDGE as he is both the bridge’s shadow and the wolf that eats the shadow.

If you asked me where Death was in DILLINGER, I’d have to say everywhere. And, also nowhere that I can be sure of. If I told you, Death was Dillinger’s Thompson, Death would suddenly turn into the dark band on Dillinger’s stetson. If I told you Death was the way Dillinger made the sign of the gun, then Death would have to become Dillinger’s fuck finger. If I said Death was Dillinger’s wooden gun, then Death would have to jump out and become a dust fleck circling the air around the wooden barrel.

Death is a riddle that cannot be stated, a quantum particle that cannot be tracked. Death’s metaphor is a collection of all metaphors and this includes the absence of all metaphors as well. Death is the black hole of poetry. All poetry comes out of that hole and all poetry returns to it. The supreme irony is we fight Death for the poem that we know he will become part of, this is the price of the poem.


1 Comment

  • in this essay by todd moore, death has never been more alive. and as todd says in this marvelous essay, “death is the ultimate trickster.” and he proves it.

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