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."