Dying to be Perverse: Why we talk to the dead

Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?

Isaiah 8:19

Isaiah was a bit of a stubborn git when you think about it. How many times did your mother tell you, ‘No, means NO!’? Not enough, evidently, as you happily went through the stormy rites of passage that we call experience. What experience is, of course, is pig-headed, stubborn, ornery pride that sociologists call deviance and your mother called something you could never catch, as your ears rang from her cross-court centre-slap: vague, silent oscillations on a blurred face, tears and then your ubiquitous loss of her ever saying anything except that it was dinnertime. I don’t think Isaiah ever really got round that particular idea either.

Childhood over, your purulent burst into adolescence meant that pride was expressed by the outstretched middle finger at anything that in the language of the powerless was considered to be authority. The gulag of the home-cooked meal; the merciless regime of Clearasil; the war on time-keeping; passing through—and out—from this temporary revolt against breathing, you stumbled semi-conscious into the charnel house of mortgage, marriage and children.

Should it be any wonder that we look at death with a watchful eye? ‘You shouldn’t dwell on it’ is as effective a discouragement as mother’s ‘Don’t pick your scabs, they’ll go bad!’ or ‘If you keep doing that, you’ll stick like it when the wind changes.’ Forever life’s meteorologist wannabes, we look to death not just in terror; not just for affirmation that life is better than we dare think, on the whole; and not that death is better than life without ‘X’. We look to death because we’re not supposed to. ‘It’s not healthy’, say the naysayers—a bit like Victorian doctors spoke of ‘Self-abuse’ and ‘hairy palms’. The world of science tells us though that Madam Palm and her five lovely daughters in fact save men at least from the horrors of prostate cancer.

‘ I see dead people’

Luckily, we don’t (mostly) share the odd world of Haley Joel Osment’s cupboard-avoiding character, and the dead, for the most part stay dead, and fortunately silent, except for the inner dialogues and fantasies that we create around them. There is comfort in these dialogues, even if ultimately they may be only fantasy.

So looking at death can be good for you? Well poets at least have been looking at it for centuries: ‘Death, be not proud’. Okay, poets tend to throw themselves from high buildings and into gas-filled ovens faster than you can say ‘psychoplath’, but on the whole, it does give us a measure by which we can better judge ourselves. It can bring us bed-wetting fear, like Philip Larkin, or peace, like Mr Donne, above.

Whatever it does, there is an inherent fascination that we as humans, and especially poets can’t leave alone. Here are a few pokings at the mortal scabs of our contributors’ lives. We hope you enjoy lifting them, and simultaneously lifting your literary middle fingers to the naysayers of doom at the same time.

Editors’ Picks

Patricia Wallace Jones: I love Tim’s poem, ‘Prayer for a Horseman’.

All know I didn’t choose Tim’s poem because I grasp its metrical perfection… I am not a judge of metre like most SCR readers are. I love poems that speak to me as a reader. I think the language, description and message in this one are to live for. I respond to what the poem says. Like many of Tim’s poems, this one takes me back, reminds me of growing up with pointers and setters and an avid hunting, fly-fishing, red-headed father (and mother, too, for that matter) whom I loved dearly. I embrace this poem for how wealthy it makes me feel when I read it.

Thanks, Tim.

Angela France: My choice is Bill Greenwell’s ‘Life’ for its startling imagery and quiet fatalism.

Paul Stevens: Ann Drysdale’s ‘Monstrance or Reliquary’. I love its flirtation of wicked wit with poignant insight and its amazing juxtaposition of imagery. And who could resist ‘Exquisite tits; pert pears on scarlet saucers’?

Donald Zirilli: ‘Cultural Relativity’ by Enriqueta Carrington speaks through a skull’s mouth in perfect translation, allowing us to hear with bones. But the poem is much less pretentious than my description of it. Just read it.

Nigel Holt: Arlene Ang’s ‘In Memoriam‘ , David Anthony’s ‘Out of the Night’, Michael Cantor’s ‘Deathwatch’ and the Murph’s ‘Prayer for a Horseman’ are all really, really good. A motionary feat, you could almost say. But once more something’s amis with me, as I go for Frank Osen’s crackling little Lowerwatha: ‘Going Amis’. Beautiful writing; odd smell.

Changes in Crew

Paul Stevens has gone feral and run off into the Wild, eating bark from trees, drinking from algae-mantled forest pools and making growling noises. Rose Kelleher has replaced him as Poetry Editor, and Nigel Holt as Chief Editor.

Don Zirilli was lured into the Destiny Casino and is enthusiastically playing Blackjack and Fan-tan there while drinking Rusty Nails. He has been replaced as Art Editor by Patricia Wallace Jones.

The SCR canoe continues to voyage intrepidly upstream.

   In Memoriam