Dying words

The poem in the preceding post, Japanese Maple, by Clive James, is something I wanted to record here because it is a poem of poignant beauty. These are the words of a man dying, who knows his time is short, but who hopes to live long enough to see the leaves of the maple tree turn flame. It is scattered with commonplace observation that resonates because it rings true. There is a weary acceptance of pending death, a detachment from the process, and, above all, wonder at the world he sees now as if with fresh minted eyes.

From the outside reading this it is terribly sad, but also in a way life affirming. I know Clive James so well, or feel I do, as so many thousands of others do. The world without the wit and sparkle of James will be a lesser place. It’s hard to think of him going from us. There is melancholy then as you read his measured, reflective words, but something fine too.

There are times when you hear a piece of music from Mozart say, or Beethoven, and you feel yourself taken by it. For those few minutes the world about you fades away and you are transported to a place of transcendent truth. I’ve written before how the only time I feel any religious spirit is when I hear a particularly wonderful piece of music. In the presence of such perfect beauty you yourself feel elevated. You recall that there are greater, more wonderful things in the world, that it is far bigger, more mysterious than your everyday thoughts would have you believe. The music lingers in you afterwards, and the feeling permeates you for an hour or so. All of life is worthwhile if such beauty can exist.

I feel something of that reading this poem, though not in the same way. It’s a complex mix. There’s a sense of personal attachment to a cultural icon. He’s part of my history too even though he has no idea that I exist. Then the poem itself, the beauty – if that’s the word – inherent in it’s telling. It is beautifully crafted, and more telling for being the heartfelt truth. He lives today in all this richness, and soon he will not. Then of course there is the subject matter: pending death. It resonates for everyone. I can’t help but read something like this and have flit across my mind memories of those close to me who have now gone. This poem reaches deep down into me.

I first read this a week or so ago, and I wonder in a way if it has infected my perspective since. I wrote over the weekend about how, effectively, I felt there were limits upon my life. Where before I would simply do and live without much thought of where it led I found myself ticking the moments off, counting the hours. Yes, I too will die, but hopefully not for many years.

Reading the poem again today something else rubbed against me. I sit here in front of my iMac in somebody else’s home. My dog is at my feet, but little else here is mine. The minutes tick by and I feel lost and feeling for something to do or be. It’s unfamiliar and unpleasant. And I read a poem like this and I am reminded of how life is meant to be bigger than this. Was this not in fact something of what I wrote last week? I wrote that, it seems now, as a way to deny the very thing I felt trapped by. Live big, I said, or in words to that effect, feeling as I did as if my life was growing smaller with every passing day.

Right now I can feel grateful that a poem like this can move me so. And grateful for the existence of people like Clive James who encourage a greater perspective. And glad, as I recall, that beauty truly exists. And glad perhaps that I can articulate these thoughts now in the hope that perhaps I can do something about it.


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