Poetry - Autumn 2013

Dying Is Hard to Do

By Langdon Hammer | September 12, 2013


The poems by J. D. McClatchy that follow—stern, stately, disturbing—explore the ways our bodies bind us to mortality. The first is an elegy for the poet’s mother, disguised as a meditation on his collection of hands—reproductions, to be sure, coming from various sacred and profane contexts. The second tells the story of McClatchy’s “Robotic Prostatectomy”—a deliberately ugly mouthful of a title, describing an experience difficult to stomach. The third, “His Own Life,” concerns the intractable messiness of death and the moral choices it poses.

McClatchy is so active and widely known as a man of letters—as an opera librettist, a poetry reviewer, critic, and translator, a tireless editor and anthologist, among other roles—that it’s possible to lose sight of his career as a poet, which has unfolded with deepening seriousness over six collections.

While he began as an elegant formal poet of wit and polish, McClatchy has gained power and dimension by setting technical refinement in tension with raw subject matter. More and more this has meant facing up to the body’s coarse truths. “In a sense,” he remarks, “I’ve merely come to agree with George Seferis,” the modern Greek poet, “who once said that the poet has only one subject: his own living body. It is the body where we learn our first lessons in pain and pleasure, and our later lessons in betrayal and decay. The body is our surest source of knowledge.” To this the three new poems here seem to add: It is because we have bodies that we die, and that dying is hard to do.

In “My Hand Collection,” the body is what’s left when life is over. The human hand: McClatchy’s tabletop facsimiles reduce our urgent gestures (“Pleading, threatening, clinging, shielding”) to icons and fetishes, fragmented symbols deeply expressive of our personhood and yet, in the end, hauntingly alien and impersonal. The same goes even for the poet’s mother’s hand, the first hand he held, as he realizes before he lets go of it, altered almost past recognition, for the last time.

The title phrase “His Own Life” is an irony: the episode recounted in the poem implies that it is impossible for anyone simply to “take his own life” without involving and implicating others. Enter this poem in today’s debates about the ethics of assisted suicide. But McClatchy directs our attention to the past by interleaving his grisly story with Tacitus’s famous account of the death of the Stoic philosopher Seneca, as if to remind us there has never been an easy way out.

Or a wholly solitary one. In “My Robotic Prostatectomy,” McClatchy acknowledges that he will have to step someday into the “unknown” of death “alone” (notice how the poem ends in a rhyme, its only one). But even then there will be a body left behind, helpless and demanding. “Whom will I ask to open the door / And discover me,” he asks at the end of “His Own Life,” “to call out one last time / To the body lying there in a windowless room?”

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