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Posts Tagged ‘death’

On Epitaphic Fictions: Ben Franklin, W. B. Yeats

April 28, 2014 | by

The first in a three-part series on writers’ epitaphs.

William_Butler_Yeats_by_John_Singer_Sargent_1908

John Singer Sargent, William Butler Yeats, 1908

“In lapidary inscriptions, a man is not upon oath.” —Samuel Johnson

Got a brittle, expensive medium? Bring an elastic ethics.

Dr. Johnson understood that words on headstones provide cover stories. Acts of make-believe inscribed in stone may be as banal as an incorrect—or fudged—year of birth; the phrase “In Loving Memory” must be a fiction much of the time. On the other hand, great writers have composed words for headstones, real and imaginary, that offer us complex fictions in which we may dwell, as if in compensation for loss. For such writers, good grief is infused with imagination.

Witness this epitaph in the collection of the Yale Library, from an autograph manuscript composed circa 1728: Read More »

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Ever So Humble

April 25, 2014 | by

Andreas Duncan Carse, Bargain Hunters

This morning my family went to several tag sales, as is our habit. Saturday is of course the major day for such things, but there are always a few that begin earlier, and a careful perusal of the local papers had yielded three, of which one looked promising. It was an estate sale, and the ad boasted “collectibles,” “books,” and a 1991 Chrysler LeBaron.

Since my parents sold their house, they have talked a lot about “divesting.” After clearing out her own parents’ home, my mom said repeatedly that she did not want to burden me and my brother with a similar task, and they had an enormous, slightly morbid tag sale of their own. And yet this has not curtailed their activities: every Thursday they examine the paper, annotate the sales page with arrows and underlines and the occasional exclamation mark, and plot their route.Read More »

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Finding a Life on the Edge

March 27, 2014 | by

Cape Elizabeth, June 1983_2

William Rich Holland, the author’s father, at Cape Elizabeth, 1983.

Every spring my mother flies out from her home in Walla Walla, Washington, to spend ten days with me in New York. Because her visits are often the only uninterrupted stretch of time we have together every year, they go mostly unplanned. “It isn’t vacation if you have to plan!” Mom has been known to say.

But when she made her way East in May 2012, just after my twenty-ninth birthday, her trip had an explicit purpose. It was my father’s fortieth reunion at Colby College, and she and I would be attending in his stead to represent his legacy and all that he had left behind.

In April 1989, at the age of thirty-nine, my father, Bill Holland, disappeared in an ice climbing accident in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada. While he was attempting an unroped descent off Slipstream—the three-thousand-foot frozen waterfall that runs along the treacherous east face of Mt. Snow Dome—he fell through a cornice of ice and, as the accident reports later concluded, likely into a crevasse. A subsequent weeklong storm system dumped an estimated thirty feet of snow in the area, delaying initial rescue attempts. By the time a search party could safely enter, the snowfall had been so significant that Parks Canada was eventually forced to abandon recovery efforts. My father was never found. Read More »

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Terra Incognita

March 13, 2014 | by

Remembering Sherwin Nuland, the author of How We Die, who died last week.

THUMB_NULAND

Photo: Yale.edu

I attended the Yale School of Medicine when Shep Nuland taught there, and despite our both being surgeons, I know him best in my capacity as a reader. I don’t recall when I first read How We Die—I was just finishing high school when it came out—but I do know that few books I had read so directly and wholly addressed that fundamental fact of existence: all organisms, whether goldfish or grandchild, die. His description of his grandmother’s illness showed me how the personal, medical, and spiritual all intermingled. As a child, Nuland would play a game in which he indented her skin to see how long it took to resume its shape—a part of the aging process that, along with her newfound shortness of breath, showed her “gradual slide into congestive heart failure … the significant decline in the amount of oxygen that aged blood is capable of taking up from the aged tissues of the aged lung.”

But “what was most evident,” he continued, “was the slow drawing away from life… By the time Bubbeh stopped praying, she had stopped virtually everything else as well.” With her fatal stroke, Shep Nuland remembers Browne’s Religio Medici: “With what strife and pains we come into the world we know not, but ’tis commonly no easy matter to get out of it.” Read More »

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Death, and Other News

March 6, 2014 | by

frederik ruysch

A depiction of one of Frederik Ruysch’s anatomical displays. Image via the Public Domain Review.

  • Sherwin B. Nuland, the author of How We Die, is dead.
  • In Los Angeles, a group of ghost hunters are chasing the dead.
  • The punk ethos of the Lower East Side is dead.
  • The Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch died in 1731, but his deathly sketches still haunt us today: “not only did he exalt the human anatomy as a wondrous product of creation, but he presented himself as a veritable artist of death.”
  • On the eastern seaboard, the hemlock is dying out. Though the tree bears only a superficial resemblance to the plant that killed Socrates, “it seems impossible to separate the hemlock tree from the hemlock plant’s poison, for a poet to keep the death of Socrates out of the picture—for death is in the forest, especially a hemlock forest, especially now.”

 

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A Chain on the Great Feelings

February 11, 2014 | by

The deceptively breezy poems of Stevie Smith.

NPG x133107; Florence Margaret ('Stevie') Smith by Jane Bown

Photo: Jane Bown

Stevie Smith’s playful, carnivalesque poems, tiny on the page but emotionally trenchant, are getting a new life—her Best Poems were reissued in December. 

It’s high time. Smith’s work has been nearly forgotten, her books having fallen out of print. She is not, on the surface, tenderly lyrical or feminist enough to court contemporary readers. Born in England in 1902, she enjoyed some popularity in the sixties for oddball performances of her poems, which she often sang, or read with spooky dramatic flair, but she might just have been too original, or too variegated, for any one school of poetry to champion her work. Perhaps she has also been dismissed because she comes off as cold and hard, a person of uncertain likeability: her so-called comic verse roils with death wishes and sneering attacks on other poets. (“Let all the little poets be gathered together in classes / And let prizes be given to them by the Prize Asses,” she says in “To School!”) She has been put in with Blake, Coleridge, and Emily Dickinson. Fine company, but Smith is far more varied, unfettered, and disenchanted than all that. Her lines have scope. They contain a high-low mix of childlike diction, plain speech, formal rhymes, and heroic couplets, with a register that ricochets between folk tunes, hymnals, liturgy, nursery rhymes, and lyrical verse. She deliberately set many poems to the tunes of hymns, and sang them as such. Given all the wit and intellect that animate her poetry, why has she been forgotten? 

A profoundly independent and, by all accounts, slightly peculiar woman, Smith—born Florence Margaret, and only later Stevie—lived in the same house in North London from the time she was three until her death, taking care of an aunt she treasured, without the need to insert a proper man or children into her life. She worked as a secretary in the women’s magazine business for her entire career, which perhaps is why, in her poems and in her letters, she tilts to seeing women as acutely silly. She avoided serious relationships, settling instead into easily reciprocated, caring friendships and a familial bond with her aunt. Read More »

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