Sunday, March 08, 2015

`Death is Gentle and Anonymous'

A pleasing, unplanned confluence of texts. I was reading King Lear again when I picked up The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse, an anthology edited by Les Murray in 1986 and probably best known for its inclusion of Aboriginal poetry. Most of the poets included are new to this American reader, including Peter Goldsworthy, a novelist and physician born in 1951 in Darwin. Murray selects two of Goldsworthy’s poems which share the theme of “afterness” – what happens following the main event in the Bible and Shakespeare. Go here to read "After Babel." Here is "Act Six":

“Act six begins
when the curtain falls,
the corpses awake,
the daggers are cleaned.

“Act six
is Juliet in the supermarket,
Mr Macbeth on the 8.15.
 

“In act six
Hamlet sucks a tranquilliser,
Romeo washes up.
 

“and death
is gentle and anonymous —
Lear’s respirator
switched discreetly off.”
 

This is funny, especially when we know Goldsworthy is a doctor. Its straight-faced ridiculousness reminds me of Tom Disch’s “The Art of Dying,” in which he assigns unlikely demises to poets: “The execution of Marianne Moore,” for instance, and “Pope disappearing like a barge into a twilight of drugs.” But Goldsworthy’s premise also suggests how seriously some of us take the great characters in literature, endowing them with an autonomous existence. In his “Preface to Shakespeare,” Dr. Johnson says little about Lear. His eyes are on Cordelia: 

“...if my sensations could add any thing to the general suffrage, I might relate, that I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.”

1 comment:

ghostofelberry said...

Wasn't there some famous 18th C actress who played Lady Macbeth and left the theatre after her last scene, without inquiring as to the fate of the other characters?