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The Poet Faces Death

As a Worship Associate in my church, I occasionally assist in services, like a high-level version of an altar boy from my Catholic boyhood. That means I get to do some reading and talking instead of leaving it all to the priest. One function is a brief personal reflection tied to the presenter’s sermon theme. The subject on this occasion was suffering and mortality, for which I used this achingly lovely poem by Susan Deborah King as grist for my comments which follow in the next post. If you prefer to listen to the poem and reflection, click on the tab below the poem.

“As Death Approaches” by Susan Deborah King, from One-Breasted Woman

© 2007 Holy Cow! Press  Reprinted with permission.

As Death Approaches

I can’t believe I’m laughing!

I’d have sworn I’d be

shaking or sniveling.

And I sure didn’t expect

a limousine.

I’ve never been in a limousine.

No biggy.

I’ve had better than fame.

Who needs the p...

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Outliving Ernest Becker and “The Denial of Death”

In his 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning work “The Denial of Death,” cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker wove together major threads of psychology, philosophy, anthropology and religion in positing that the central motivating force of human life is the fear of death, which compels us to live in its denial. We do so by not thinking or talking about it much, by drinking and drugging too much, sleepwalking through life as if it were giving us all the time in the world, embracing eternal life doctrines of religion, and by pursuing any number of immortality-seeking “hero” projects in our jobs, sports, the military, hobbies, and private obsessions. (Climbing Everest, making beautiful pots, writing a book, getting rich, becoming a philanthropist with buildings named after us…)

Becker also placed great importance on our embrace of culture—our affiliations with family, community, nation, race, tribe an...

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Reflections From the Abyss: The God Quest of Poet Christian Wiman

Poets are by turns lyrical, expressive, rhythmic, and profound, but perhaps most of all, they are intense. Their intensity manifests in the sharp eye they cast on the world and every detail in it, the careful, sustained scrutiny they give to every object, person or situation in front of them, and to every resultant thought in their mind and gut that is yearning for expression.

It is this intensity that perhaps most shines forth from poet Christian Wiman’s recent memoir, “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer.”

If poetry has a way of concentrating the mind, then a wretched and ostensibly terminal disease befalling the poet no doubt does that concentration one better. Wiman has been suffering/benefiting from this fate for nearly eight years now, holding at bay a rare blood cancer that struck him at age 39 and which his initial prognosis suggested would kill him long ago...

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Brilliant Songs #39: Hayes Carll and Josh Morningstar’s “Help Me Remember”

I’ve become ever more convinced with age that It’s not so much the plain fact of death that people fear as they face the downslope of their allotted years on earth. It’s not death but the nature of the dying that furrows their brows during conversations about the end of life.

At least that’s how it is for me and most every aged peer I talk to when conversations—not all of them, but many—at least touch on who’s in the hospital now, who’s going in soon, who’s getting out, and whether the getting out is to go home, go to the nursing home, or go to the morgue.

And the last of those is the least of most everyone’s worries.

The thought of death is dwarfed first by the fear of unrelieved physical pain, though modern methods and attitudes toward pain management have significantly reduced the incidence and concern that one’s end may be accompanied by acute bodily suffering.

It’s another fear that strikes the mo...

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Brilliant Songs #38: Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”

I learned the Australian folk ballad “Waltzing Matilda” so early in my elementary school years that I don’t remember very much of the life I led before it became one of those anthemic tunes that courses through my blood with ease and gladness whenever I find myself suddenly singing it in the shower or out on a bike ride in the sun-splotched innocence of a spring day.

So the genius of Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” is that it uses the freewheeling joy of the original as the backdrop for a deep lamentation on the devastating losses of war. Bogle frames those losses not in the realm of great battles and territory surrendered or annexed, but in the individual persons (young men in this case) with families, friends and romances waiting for them at home, and a future that will never be realized.

The setting is World War I, perhaps the most nonsensical war of all the nonsense that lies deep ...

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