Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Weekly Scribblings #37: Last Messages

Japanese Maple

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colours will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

Clive James (1939-2019)
(From Sentenced to Life. London, Picador, 2015.) 

James wrote this in the knowledge that he was dying. But it took some years longer than he seemed to anticipate here – five more years in fact – so he assuredly did live to see the tree at its best, probably several times over. The poem was written in 2014, first published in The New Yorker, and was widely regarded as his 'farewell poem'. (Interesting that it begins in the second person, addressing himself, and then moves into first person, owning that final rejoicing in beauty, and in the fact that life goes on even if his life doesn't.)

The American Raymond Carver (1938-1988) also kept writing after he knew he was dying. Two short poems from those final months might be seen as his farewell statements: 


No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.”

Late Fragment

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

I wonder how much the positive statements from both these men – one dying old and the other relatively young – were intended to comfort the loved ones they left behind. They ring true in any case, but that could very well have been an additional motivation.

In East Asia (Japan, China, Korea) there is a long tradition of death poems called jisei, reflecting on one's own death and/or death in general. They are supposed to be written on the death-bed, or at least when death seems imminent, but they could be written earlier. In form they usually resemble haiku or tanka. This is a jisei by a famous female haiku poet, Chiyo-ni (1703-1775):

having gazed at the moon
I depart from this life
with a blessing

(I've written a couple myself in the past; you can find them here.)


So, dear wordsmiths, what would be your final message to the world?

Not meaning to be unduly morbid (as you see, the poets I've quoted weren't) today I ask you to write your own death-bed reflections – way ahead of time, we trust! I'd like a new piece of writing, please, in prose or poetry.

If poetry, you might like to base it on the form James uses, or copy Carver's self-questioning, or you might even attempt a jisei – but these are only suggestions; any kind of poetry is fine. If prose, we only ask that you keep it to 369 words or fewer (excluding title). Though you might like to emulate the jisei in prose and make a much shorter statement; not necessarily three lines but maybe a paragraph? Up to you!

Please link to your contribution in Mister Linky, and we'd love it if you'd link back to this post from your blog.

The prompt will remain open for a week. I'm looking forward to reading what you come up with, and also any comments you may care to leave here about these rather joyous death poems.

Material shared here is presented for study and review. Poems, photos, and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, usually the authors. (Older poems may be out of copyright). Thanks to Ian Matyssik at Unsplash for the maple leaves.


  1. Lines 3 to 5 in the first poem are especially difficult to read in these times of COVID-19. The mention of respiratory discomfort, the allusion to life fading while mental faculties are still sharp. Some tough few lines, indeed. I like the closing very much. And I think that your commentary is right on both counts--he probably wanted his words to comfort his loved ones, but I want to know that they were also true of him.

    The "Gravy" poem made me smile. It reads like a gift that arrives right when the receiver thought all was lost. That makes the whole thing extra yummy.

    The jisei sings the kind of song I wish to sing when my time comes. And I suspect that I will. For regardless of how bad things get in the end, I can can see myself remember all the good that came before.

    Thank you for this fantastic Weekly Scribblings and poetry selection, Rosemary.

    Happiest readings, everyone!

  2. Quite the challenge, not certain which direction to head ... lighthearted or really serious. Lots to consider, Rosemary. Lots.

    1. Naughty, naughty! (And it was a delightfully naughty poem too, that second one.)

  3. I thought this challenge would truly be the death of me. Can someone who uses Blogger please tell me what I'm doing wrong. I'm given two choices .. HTML or Compose View. If I choose HTML everything goes into block form, no line returns; if I chose Compose View everything is double-spaced. I have spent hours on this besotted thing, and I am completely bumfuzzled!

    1. Yes, I do wish 'they' wouldn't keep fixing things that ain't broke! Have you tried typing and formatting in a document first, then copying and pasting into the Compose View on your blog?

  4. This was a nice idea, I've done a few before in jest. This time mine was more serious. I WANT THE WORLD TO KNOW THOUGH THAT I SHOULD NOT DIE SOON BUT I COULD. I have been asked to write an obituary for a lady friend, age 94 or so. I'm guessing that I should be honored to do that for her.

    1. And I am still using old blogger until September. I think the new format will be horrid using my smart phone.

    2. Jim, I believe the new design is actually meant for use on phones. I have just been trying it on mine, using phone right now indeed, and it does seem to make better sense in this environment.

    3. Let me just say .... I detest this new format. I never work on my phone, my iPad is all wonky and now my desktop is not doing what I want it to do. I loaded a video I made years ago ,,,, new blogger will not post it. Curses!

    4. I agree, Helen. I don't normally work on my phone either, nor even iPad. For things like this I prefer my actual computer. But there is provision to give feedback, using the Help icon (the ? at top right of screen). I suggest we all complain vociferously about the things we don't like. I certainly am.

  5. The poems that you shared are poignant and beautiful, especially those by Carver. I'll see what I can come up with (a few days late).


Please be respectful of all the people on this site, as each individual writer is entitled to their own opinion, style, and path to creativity.