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Poems for Ahdel - from Susan Motheral

3-15-13 - Susan Motheral wrote:

Our conversation about Ahdel led me to reading some of my favorite poems related to death, and I am sending you four of them.  If I was able to come to the service for Ahdel, I might want to read the poem, Perfection Wasted by John Updike.   I love the sweetness of this poem an how it recognizes the individuality of the one who has passed from this life.

I first came across Jane Hirshfield's poetry in the New Yorker Magazine in the form of November Remembering Voltaire, maybe 35 years ago. For me, I am a gardner and the cycles of new life and the decay of life lie at the heart of my faith.  I hope that this poem is read after my passing. [The one with the line "I conjure a stubborn faith in rotting."

The next poem, "It was Like This, You Were Happy" was a poem that came to mind after the first time I went to see Ahdel at Stonegate [Nursing Center].  I thought about giving it to her, reading it to her.  And, I suppose that I was shy about talking about death, though it seemed to me that Ahdel's grace in her process was beautiful and was akin to the notion of:  "Like a lover, your life bends down and kisses your life."

The final poem in this group is more for those of us living after a death, or probably stark endings of any kind.  In my experience, she accurately depicts what the process feels like.  At least that was true for me after I was diagnosed with cancer 16 years ago, and after each of my parents died.  I love the image I conjure with the words:  Say “death” and the whole room freezes–? … Like a squirrel suddenly aware it is being looked at.

I am glad that I had the opportunity to know your mother a little, to enjoy her company.  I shall miss her.

With much love and oodles of light,



Perfection Wasted

John Updike

And another regrettable thing about death

is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,

which took a whole life to develop and market-

the quips, the witticisms, the slant

adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest

the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched

in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,

their tears confused with their diamond earrings,

their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,

their response and your performance twinned.

The jokes over the phone. The memories packed

in the rapid-access file. The whole act.

Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;

imitators and descendants aren’t the same.


November, Remembering Voltaire

by Jane Hirshfield


In the evenings

I scrape my fingernails clean,

hunt through old catalogues for new seed,

oil workbooks and shears.

This garden is no metaphor --

more a task that swallows you into itself,

earth using, as always, everything it can.

I lend myself to unpromising winter dirt

with leaf-mold and bulb,

plant into the oncoming cold.

Not that I ever thought the philosopher

meant to be taken literally,

but with no invented God overhead

I conjure a stubborn faith in rotting

that ripens into soil,

in an old corm that flowers steadily each spring –

not symbols but reassurances,

like a mother’s voice at bedtime

reading a long-familiar book, the known words

barely listened to, but bridging

for all the nights of a life

each world to the next.



Jane Hirshfield

It was like this:

you were happy, then you were sad,

then happy again, then not.

It went on.

You were innocent or you were guilty.

Actions were taken, or not.


At times you spoke, at other times you were silent.

Mostly, it seems you were silent—what could you say?


Now it is almost over.


Like a lover, your life bends down and kisses your life.


It does this not in forgiveness—

between you, there is nothing to forgive—

but with the simple nod of a baker at the moment

he sees the bread is finished with transformation.


Eating, too, is now a thing only for others.


It doesn’t matter what they will make of you

or your days: they will be wrong,

they will miss the wrong woman, miss the wrong man,

all the stories they tell will be tales of their own invention.


Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,

you slept, you awakened.

Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.


Poem With Two Endings

Jane Hirshfield


Say “death” and the whole room freezes

even the couches stop moving,

even the lamps.

Like a squirrel suddenly aware it is being looked at.


Say the word continuously,

and things begin to go forward.

Your life takes on

the jerky texture of an old film strip.


Continue saying it,

hold it moment after moment inside the mouth,

it becomes another syllable.

A shopping mall swirls around the corpse of a beetle.


Death is voracious, it swallows all the living.

Life is voracious, it swallows all the dead.

neither is ever satisfied, neither is ever filled,

each swallows and swallows the world.


The grip of life is as strong as the grip of death.


(but the vanished, the vanished beloved, o where?)