Poem Ended by a Death
They will wash all my kisses and fingerprints off you
and my tearstains--I was more inclined to weep
in those wild-garlicky days--and our happier stains,
thin scales of papery silk. . . Fuck that for a cheap
opener; and false, too--any such traces
you pumiced away yourself, those years ago
when you sent my letters back, in the week I married
that anecdotal ape. So start again. So:
They will remove the tubes and drips and dressings
which I censor from my dreams. They will, it is true,
wash you; and they will put you into a box.
After which whatever they do
won't matter. This is my laconic* style.
You praised it, as I praised your intricate pearled
embroideries; these links laced us together,
plain and purl** across the ribs of the world . . .
** Stitch in knitting with needle moved in opposite to normal (plain) direction
Fleur Adcock 1979
For a poem that seems to be about a body, there is a lot of heart to "Poem Ended by Death." Of course, it is about a relationship, though the narrator seems to emphasize the physical connection between she and her ex-lover. The first three lines shows the connection between the two physically with kisses, fingerprints, tearstains (we wonder whether the power of their physical intimacy could have made her weep then, or whether it is just a testament to their intense connection), and "thin scales of papery silk," another nod to their erotic adventures.
But the narrator checks herself, saying that the physically saturated opener is "cheap," and misleading as well. Those stains were there, but he effectively effaced them. Here it becomes absolutely evident that there is more to their relationship than simple physical interaction, for the body then serves as a metaphor for deeper things. It is still the dominant metaphor, showing that it was probably a dominant element in their relationship.
We get the details of this relationship in a few short lines. He erased her from his life, sending her letters back, when she married someone else. The tone is matter-of-fact, almost grinning at itself. The narrator swears casually and calls her (ex?) husband "that anecdotal ape." This is funny. I know that pointing out funny things is a pretty good way to make them un-funny, but I appreciate it when literature doesn't take itself so seriously. This poem is fantastic in that it manages to be funny and sexual and sad and complex while retaining a strong voice.
Part of this ability to mix humor and seriousness comes from the poem's honesty. The narrator, whether she wanted to begin so idealistically or not, acknowledges that she did, that it was dishonest, and that the right thing is to candidly tell what happened. "So start again.," she says, and launches into the truth of the matter. There is almost an in-breath at the colon. She lays out the facts: "They will remove the tubes and drips and dressings / which I censor from my dreams. They will, it is true, / wash you, and they will put you into a box. / After which whatever else they may do / won't matter." We learn that she was concerned for him, that his death was probably drawn-out, and that things are now over. Once he is in the box, nothing matters any more.
This comment seems to emphasize the body again, for once it falls from sight, somehow their relations are officially over. I think, though, that she is just willing to end things. Not coldly cut them off, but breathe in, grit your teeth, and nod, yes, we loved, yes, it's over. So when she talks of her "laconic style," perhaps she's not merely referring to the tone. It seems that she lives her life laconically, not drawing things out unnecessarily.
Which is what made her lover's "intricate pearled / embroideries" all the better. Unlike the speaker, he seems to have found connections everywhere. But both are necessary. The entire poem, in fact, is a balancing of different ideas. The first part is a fantast, how she would like to remember the relationship, while the second is a candid look at his death. The rhyme scheme also shows the interlacing of two different styles - it is abcb defe ghih jklk - rhymed pairs laced with unrhymed. This seems to parallel the embroidered, connected man with the terse, jerkier woman. Along with the rhyme, the mixture of "plain and purl" shows their balance of laconic and intuitive. Both are necessary, knit together "across the ribs of the world." This final line recalls the emphasis on the body, but it reminds us that beneath the ribs lies the heart.
Before I end this, a couple of the thoughts I remembered after writing the bulk of this: the emphasis on the body comes through in the repetition of the “oooo” and “oh” sounds in “So,” “so,” “ago” and “true,” “you,” “into,” and “do.” These are sexual sounds, and ramp up the energy of this poem. Then, too, the title of the poem calls into question the relations between art and life. Adcock’s poem begins with a death, but ends with an affirmation of their connection. The poem the title refers to may be, instead, their relationship, or perhaps the man’s life. In either case, the title asks what about our own lives and relationships is poetic. Our connections? Our loves? Our honesty? Our personal style, be it terse or embellished, logical or intuitive? I like the idea of life as poetry. I think of most things in terms of poetry, I suppose. Prayer, relationships, conversations…