By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.
When David Rakoff died last year at the age of 47, he'd turned away from his trademark nonfiction to focus exclusively on a different form: rhyming poetry. The acclaimed essayist--known for tempering stark reflections with a generous spirit and rakish humor--completed a novel in verse just weeks before the malignant sarcoma in his shoulder killed him. This final product of Rakoff's fascination with meter and rhyme, titled Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, has been released by Doubleday this week.
Rare in our day despite its history of distinguished practitioners (you know, Homer, Chaucer, Derek Walcott), the novel in verse is already an odd duck--in The New York Times, Rakoff's editor admitted his hesitation about the project. But Rakoff's book is truly singular. In galloping tetrameter, it spans 100 years and several linked casts of characters. Deadpan portraits drawn by the artist Seth stare out at the reader between chapters. There is so much bound up in the novel's singsong verse: stories about AIDS and Alzheimer's, altruism, art, lives linked together by buried incidents that spring up again to bear unexpected fruit. (The book's narrative structure has tragic resonance for a writer whose initial course of radiation, taken at age 22 to stave off lymphoma, likely caused the sarcoma that killed him many years later.)
Unsentimental to the core, it is strange that Rakoff was drawn to heroic couplets, the locked-in A / A / B / B rhyme scheme he masters here. The form is often associated with the kinds of banalities Rakoff, recipient of the James Thurber Prize for humor, liked to eviscerate: Hallmark cards and corporate jingles, failed children's poetry, and corny jokes. And crass wedding toasts--when Rakoff mocks one in a section that channels a bridesmaid's voice, the author's finely tuned verse goes all stilted and tin-eared. For its predictability and dogged lack of deviation, rhyming poetry tends to be synonymous with bad, bad, bad.
So why would Rakoff choose a much-abused and much-maligned rhyme form? Maybe to illustrate how tied we are, as humans, to banality. Dead before age 50, Rakoff knew all too well that even historic lives end in gloomy, fluid-stained beds (just listen to the chilling monologue he wrote for the Oscar-winning short film The New Tenants). He knew, after years of painful treatment, that vain attempts to cheat death only make us more absurd. We're locked, predictable as clanging rhymes and measured meter, to the fact of our birth and fate, so Rakoff locked the last, best insights of his life inside a hackneyed form. If we can accept some serious measure of ingloriousness, he seems to say, then there is room for beauty, laughter, wisdom, and a kind of grace.
In this series, contributors celebrate the writers who have meant most to them. So to welcome Rakoff yet again to our shelves and Kindles, I reached out to Ira Glass, host of Public Radio International's This American Life. Rakoff's voice, silky but coiled with deadly wit, was a fixture on the show. Glass watched Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish come to life--his friend read from drafts of it on the program in 2003 and 2009--and he shared the story behind one of the novel's most memorable and moving sections.
Ira Glass: Even as a little kid, I thought about death a lot. I grew up in the '60s, watched my Uncle Lenny get sent to Vietnam, and was sure I'd be going soon enough as well. As best as I could tell from TV, being a soldier looked a lot like doing sports and I sucked at sports. So I was certain I'd suck at being a soldier too. As a result I spent many nights of my childhood lying in bed before falling asleep, trying to imagine my imminent death, what it meant to not exist any more. I'd try to picture all of eternity continuing without me. I was a speck. I was nothing. I was gone. Forever. I can't believe this is a very unusual childhood experience.
As an adult, my nightly obsession with complete obliteration has faded, but I still have a weakness for any writing that returns me to my childhood bed, pondering what's to come. I love Billy Collins's poem "The Afterlife" where he posits that "Everyone is right, as it turns out. You go to the place you always thought you would go." Some, Collins writes, stand "naked before a forbidding judge who sits with a golden ladder on one side, a coal chute on the other," some evaporate into units of pure energy, some "are approaching the apartment of the female God, a woman in her forties with short wiry hair and glasses hanging from her neck by a string."
Shortly before he died, my friend David Rakoff wrote a very different sort of dispatch from the edge of the abyss. At the time, David had cancer and was playing out the endgame of trying one treatment after another, none of them working as well or as long as we all wanted. He was writing a novel in rhymed couplets. In this passage, he describes what it's like to know you have very few days left. He gives these thoughts to one of the book's main characters, Cliff, who at that point in the story is dying of AIDS.
I wish I had something smarter to say about this passage than this: I find it deeply relatable. I'm guessing that someday I--and maybe you, too--will have exactly this experience, pretty much exactly as he describes it. Ready for the hilarity? Just kidding. Here we go:
It was sadness that gripped him, far more than the fear
That, if facing the truth, he had maybe a year.
When poetic phrases like "eyes, look your last"
Become true, all you want is to stay, to hold fast.
A new, fierce attachment to all of this world
Now pierced him, it stabbed like a deity-hurled
Lightning bolt lancing him, sent from above,
Left him giddy and tearful. It felt like young love.
He'd thought of himself as uniquely proficient
At seeing, but now that sense felt insufficient.
He wanted to grab, to possess, to devour
To eat with his eyes, how he needed that power.
But, just like a child whose big gun is a stick,
Cliff was now harmless, he'd gotten too sick
To take any action beyond rudimentary
Routines that had shrunk to the most elementary:
Which pill to take now, and where is your sweater?
Did the Immodium make you feel better?
Study your shit to make sure you'd not bled,
Make sure the Kleenex is next to the bed.
"Make sure," "be prepared," plan out every endeavor
Like a scout on the stupidest camping trip ever.
The facts were now harder, reality colder
His parasol no match for that falling boulder.
And so the concern with the trivial issues:
Slippers nearby and the proximate tissues
He thought of those two things in life that don't vary
(Well, thought only glancingly; more was too scary)
Inevitable, why even bother to test it,
He'd paid all his taxes, so that left... you guessed it.
I know the day David wrote this. He told me. It was March 11, 2012. He had five months left to live. On that day, he and I and my wife went to see the Monica Bill Barnes Dance Company perform at the 92nd Street Y. Rakoff--who'd danced when he was younger--adored them. He told me later, that's where the line about "eat with your eyes" comes from.
Fortunately, he got to do more than eat those dancers with his eyes. Monica, who runs the company, created a dance for Rakoff that he performed in a show we did onstage two months later.
It wrecked me every time I saw him practice or perform the piece, and it wrecks me now when I see the video. Every time he did it, he and all of us who were close to him knew it was one of the last times he'd get a chance to move like that. That's a weird thing to have in your head as you watch a performance. Like the person's already gone but they're standing right there in front of you, now bending, now gliding into a turn, now raising an arm in arc to the sky.
Just last month I saw Monica Bill Barnes perform the dance, do David's part, as a solo onstage. I know every step of the piece so well from seeing it so many times, it was like watching his ghost take over someone else's body and move it around the floor. I know how melodramatic that sounds, but really, he suddenly seemed so there. It chilled me.
I'm so glad he finished the book. I'm so glad he got to do that last dance. What else are you going to do, when you know you have so little time left? Dance a bit. Write a bit. Think about your future only glancingly. More is too scary. Which is, I suppose, not so different from what the rest of us do, starting when we're little kids, for most of our lives.