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.