Saturday, July 04, 2015

`Genuine Ebullience and Elegant Despair'

“Let the All-Stars shine from that jerry-built stage.
Let their high notes shimmer above the cold waves.
Time and the tide are counting the beats.
Death the collector is keeping the tab.”

Might as well make a party of the inevitable, with friends and good music. Brood about death, yes. Dread it, of course. But don’t let “Death the collector” be a party pooper. The poem is Dana Gioia’s “Meet Me at the Lighthouse,” a celebration of the fabled West Coast jazz club. All of the musicians recruited by Gioia (“the best talent in Tartarus”) are still alive when he calls the party in the summer of ’71– Gerry Mulligan (d. 1996), Cannonball Adderley (d. 1975), Hampton Hawes (d. 1977), Stan Getz (d. 1991), Chet Baker (d. 1988) and Art Pepper (d. 1982). 

The poem is witty and audacious enough to have been written by Tom Disch, the poet and science fiction writer once described by Gioia as “an illegal immigrant from across the literary Rio Grande.” Even while writing the lightest of light verse, Disch is darkly addressing his old friend and antagonist, “Death the collector.” As Elizabeth Hand puts it: “Few people make a successful career of contemplating death and suicide; fewer still approach the subject with the genuine ebullience and elegant despair of the prolific, criminally underappreciated writer Thomas M. Disch.” Here is “A Cape Mendocino Rose,” set on the shore of Gioia’s Pacific, from Disch’s final collection, About the Size of It (Anvil, 2007): 

“Trapped in this single hope
That life goes on, life does go on,
We search for a suitable trope. 

“That life goes on, life does go on
Can’t be denied, until it can.
`Gather ye rosebuds,’ that dark koan 

“Expresses best, and earliest,
The search for a suitable trope.
Or there’s old Horace G’s `Go west!’ 

“He on the Pacific coast
The sun spotlights a spectral rose.
Trapped in a single trope,
We lurch from hope to specious hope.” 

On this date, July 4, in 2008, Disch, age sixty-eight, took his own life.


Subbuteo said...

Desperate fella

Subbuteo said...

Also reminded me of a poem I read on the inability to come to terms with mortality. Forgive me if I have posted this before. I'm rather forgetful.


First water, poetic aristocracy,
a cricket lover, plied exquisite line
and length. An expert witness in elegy
he mourned his life, alive, as he refined
the elegant corralling of a phrase;
the management of words schooled to erase
the early grief afflicting him. His main
relief and consolation found in art,
whose sorcery’s felicity imparts
integrity to dull quotidian pain.

For him fulfillment gained from causing change
was insufficient. Being able to
impinge and choosing how to rearrange
was little privilege. No clue
how to charm mortality’s blind funk,
nor how to raise foundering courage sunk
in terror. Unless, like Baudelaire, the verse
he fashioned conjured fears, rescued his life
in metre, end-stopped time, consoled the strife
that froze his heart, helping dissolve the hearse

that passed so near. Momento Mori were
his stock in trade. He was danse macabre’s hep cat.
But why should this unman us? Let’s concur
that old Skull Hill’s our natural habitat.
The Bone House is our living room, it throws
things into focus. Such perspective grows
us balls. It sets life’s gemstone, making keen
the sweetness we receive. Colours brightened
and sounds more plangent. Tastes, too, are heightened
knowing the lease will be guillotined.

While Bechet wailed out an enormous yes
he always kept his options open, knew
“What will survive of us is love”, confessed
he sensed, though, this was only “almost true.”
Preferred half measure modern alienation,
a fifties form of British constipation,
insisting on his English diffidence,
was unconsoled and less deceived, defined
by negativity. The yes declined
in non-commitment. Never once relents.