Monday, December 22, 2008

The First Night

The worst thing about death must be the first night.—Juan Ramón Jiménez


Before I opened you, Jiménez,
it never occurred to me that day and night
would continue to circle each other in the ring of death,
but now you have me wondering
if there will also be a sun and a moon
and will the dead gather to watch them rise and set
then repair, each soul alone,
to some ghastly equivalent of a bed.
Or will the first night be the only night,
a darkness for which we have no other name?
How feeble our vocabulary in the face of death,
How impossible to write it down.
This is where language will stop,
the horse we have ridden all our lives
rearing up at the edge of a dizzying cliff.
The word that was in the beginning
and the word that was made flesh—
those and all the other words will cease.
Even now, reading you on this trellised porch,
how can I describe a sun that will shine after death?
But it is enough to frighten me
into paying more attention to the world’s day-moon,
to sunlight bright on water
or fragmented in a grove of trees,
and to look more closely here at these small leaves,
these sentinel thorns,
whose employment it is to guard the rose.

Someone (to give credit, Christian) recently forwarded me a link to this poem by Billy Collins from The Good Death blog. The poem was inspired by the line "The worst thing about death must be the first night." from Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jimenez.

In Collins' poem, he wonders if night and day continue after death or if that first night is forever. Do we continue on after death, much as we did in life, or is death "a darkness for which we have no other name"? When I read The First Night, I wondered if Jimenez meant that the first night was the worst for the deceased or the worst for those left behind. It made me think more about grief and the lives that have to continue after a loss. Can my life really go on without him/her in it?

Collins expresses a lack of words when trying to describe death. "[H]ow feeble our vocabulary in the face of death". I think he means there are no words profound enough to describe it, nor could we even know what we are describing. There is so much we don't understand. "[H]ow can I describe a sun that will shine after death?"

The last few lines of the poem, remind us to stop and enjoy life and notice the "small leaves" and "sentinel thorns" that are part of life. Is death the thorns that guard the rose (life?)? Could we really appreciate the good times if we didn't have the bad as a point of reference? Could we really appreciate life if we didn't have death?

Poems are so open to interpretation. Does anyone hear something different when you read this poem?

3 Responses to “The First Night”

ChrisO said...
December 23, 2008 at 7:39 AM

Thank you for posting this poem. As I read it I relived the senseless, numbing shock I experienced when my brother died suddenly, over 20 years ago; for me that was "the first grief" we all experience as we live our lives. Like the "first love," the first grief holds a place of its own in the heart.


Amber Wollesen, MD said...
December 23, 2008 at 9:20 PM

Thank you for sharing Chris. Poetry can have such different meaning depending on your life experiences.


Amber Wollesen, MD said...
March 16, 2011 at 11:54 PM

Thank you for sharing Chris. Poetry can have such different meaning depending on your life experiences.