A reader writes:
“I just returned from Toronto. I had a strange experience. While reading Helen Vendler's Last Looks, Last Books, her review of 5 American poets' `last looks’ at life in their final books, I looked out Air Canada's window to see what looked like a cemetery. It was Toronto, its buildings dwarfed by altitude appearing to me as tombstones.”
Reading Vendler puts me in a funereal mood too. It’s easy to joke, “I had not thought death had undone so many,” and so forth, but cemeteries are certainly cities, and vice versa, with good and bad neighborhoods. Once I toured the beautifully landscaped Vale Cemetery in Schenectady, N.Y., with Robert V. Wells, author of Facing the `King of Terrors’: Death and Society in an American Community, as my guide. It was an excellent place for bird watching. Wells pointed out the Italian, General Electric Co., and influenza neighborhoods, all segregated and plotted like plats on graph paper. Even in death we choose order.
None of the poets in Vendler’s book – Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill – came to mind as I read my reader’s e-mail. No, I thought of the opening of Briggflatts. A boy and girl accompany her father, a stonemason, who carves a tombstone. The boy and girl return to her house and make love. That’s it. Here is Bunting’s second stanza:
“A mason times his mallet
to a lark's twitter,
listening while the marble rests,
lays his rule
at a letter's edge,
till the stone spells a name
a man abolished.
Painful lark, labouring to rise!
The solemn mallet says:
In the grave's slot
he lies. We rot.”