Choosing Where to Leave
1. The Corso Death Scene
Gregory once told me that
if he were on the street and knew
he were dying, he’d slip into
a movie, didn’t know why.
So there were assumptions:
a theater nearby, the right time.
Well, we know now his way
didn’t happen—daughter’s house,
hospital. I thought, reading the news,
that a movie would have had
the comfort of closed darkness
and he’d have been with others,
a whole roomful staring at lights,
at color, with music, everyone
talking and talking on the screen,
a movie about being alive.
I’ve always hoped I’d lie
out on a hill the time death rose,
busy with the clouds and their rich
transient concoctions, the way
they boil up with luxurious names,
while doing, and that sharp blue.
3. The Stupid Tree
But it will be, outside, some stupid tree
and then I will not “see to see,”
as Dickinson described. It will be chance,
an insignificant tree with no intention
or lesson or maybe part of a terrible formal garden.
4. The Theater of Trees
Their leaves will shine like broken pieces
implacably. They will not care
about death, even their own.
And the lights too go out slowly
in the cramped rooms of the leaves,
like small theaters darkening
except that in real life the lights
come on again. Gregory, wake up.
The colored musical clouds have moved on.
Everyone has stopped talking now.
The current poet laureate, Joseph Hutchison, posted a poem of mine on his Facebook/Website during National Poetry Month, 2015. He hadn’t told me about it so I was pleasantly surprised. It appeared in my 2013 book, Some of These Days.
As I discussed the origin and form of some other poems on this site, it occurred to me to do the same here. It’s made more current by the fact that I was told in April my interview with Gregory Corso in the early ‘70s at the North Dakota Writers Conference is in an upcoming book of interviews with him.
The idea began with a memory of that interview in which Corso suddenly, and his turns of thought seemed always sudden, mentioned that if he were dying he’d go into a movie theater. I asked why and he grinned and shrugged, “I don’t know.” The image stuck with me as an example of “choosing where to leave.”
When I heard of Corso’s death in January of 2001, and that it had occurred in a Minnesota hospital, I got a twinge thinking of his earlier comment. I wrote what is now the first section, working with a slightly disjointed line/syntax rhythm (from 6 to 9 syllables as a base) and, when I could bring in the ‘movie’ idea in the last stanza, thought the poem was finished.
The poem sat, unrevised and not sent out, for some time before I found it again. I seemed to remember that I had told him I wanted to die outside and what is now Part Two of the poem came into existence. It was, at first, a short exercise in sound for me: “transient/concoctions/luxurious”
is not my usual tone. I didn’t want to add it to “The Corso Death Scene” because that first part seemed finished on its own. I felt the one stanza, though, could be added as a second part. I rarely write in sections but I felt emboldened to try it.
As if that weren’t enough, I continued the thought about my wishes for death and their likelihood of happening (rather than a new idea for a new section) and made it a Section Three. Although it’s not radical at all, I got a little thrill by starting a section in a poem with “But…” I then found a way to work in the most startling line of Emily Dickinson I remembered from high school, reading “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died: death coming on described as “and then I could not see to see.” Which sounded chilling and final in a way I’d never thought of.
And, as I’d started one section with a “But…”, I decided to break up the idea of trees and begin the Fourth Section with “Their leaves…”. Finally, and this is always the thrilling part of working with poetry, when the lights began to go out in the leaves I realized this is what happens in a movie theater, linking what I felt was moving toward an ending with the opening section through the movie reference. I needed to point out that the darkness of movies is temporary but that of death is permanent.
Of course, the lights come on when a movie is over and I found myself pretending that he fell asleep during the film. “The colored musical clouds have moved on” directly echoes the first mention of movies, “a whole roomful staring at lights,/ at color, with music, everyone/ talking and talking…” I found it comforting to pretend that I could wake him up and life might go on. I also found it necessary to make a grim twist at the end, both that the dialogue has ceased as the movie is over and that once one has died “everyone has stopped talking,” or, put another way, “He could not hear to hear.”