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M A R C H   1 9 7 4

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THE OBITUARY WRITER

by Peter Davison



audioear picture Hear Peter Davison read this poem (in RealAudio).

(For help, see a note about the audio.)

Also by Peter Davison:
You (2000)
Best Friend (2000)
These Days (2000)
Falling Water (1998)
No Escape (1997)
On Mount Timpanagos, 1935 (1997)
Like No Other (1997)
"I Hardly Dream of Anyone Who Is Still Alive" (1995)
The Unfrocked Governess (1994)
The Passing of Thistle (1989)
Gifts (1965)
The Winner (1958)

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There are two voices, and the first says, "Write!"
And the second voice says, "For Whom?" . . .
And the first voice says, "For the dead whom thou didst love."

-- John Berryman, 1968, quoting Kierkegaard, who in turn is quoting Hamann.


When I reach out towards the body of happiness,
a hoarse voice warns me off: "No no. Not you."
It must be the obituary writer,
the one who scrambled into print the hour
each poet died, always the first to know.
When off obits. he spoke for Henry, defendant.
He waved goodbye and jumped from a high bridge
and clattered dead on the ice of the Mississippi.
I felt the fall coming all the way to Rome
where I took up pen and paper, an obituary
writer's obituary writer. Quickly death spoke,
shouting in its own hoarse voice. Outside,
across Largo Febo, barely out of eyeshot,
an old mad woman had unmouthed her teeth
to save them for another life. In bib and blanket,
with stockings swathing her ankles, she set her body
adrift from the fourth-floor windowsill. She encountered
the January pavement with a cry.
Soon the polizia were snapping photos.
Neighbors huddled together in knots, muttering,
their faces gray as hers. We all mooned over
the swollen object laid out on the cobbles.
The skull was crushed. The flung hands had turned purple.
No one knew her name, least of all the papers.

Dead Henry, better known to all the papers,
was noted alive because, sober, he suffered the shakes.
Drunk, he shrieked and ranted. Who could stand
to stay in the room with him? Not prissy me,
who couldn't abide the hoo-ha, the abasement,
nor my own flinching from his open pain.
His head was full of everybody's death.
His pants sagged, his fly gaped, his hullaballoos
of falling-down drunkeness were an insult to the brain
no matter how hotly and crisply he employed
hangover time for his mettlesome minstrel show
of dreams, obituaries, exhalations.

Some obituary this is: not that of a friend
nor even of an accountant for the fact
of death, of bodies falling alive from heights
in January and landing dead. Admit
that poetry is one of the dangerous trades.
No matter how many we know who have been goaded
by its black promises to deliver
their bodies to the blue snowdrift of death,
it was not poetry, but life, they died of.
Since the day that the old woman took her teeth out
and John the master minstrel turned away
from the gravel of his brother Henry's voice,
there has been no avoiding this obituary.



Copyright © 1974 by Peter Davison. All rights reserved. As published in The Poems of Peter Davison (Knopf, 1995).
Originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, March 1974.

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