“Death is a Hysterical Dynasty”
It’s a hard poem for me to talk about, as it’s literally about death–that of two old friends of mine. I often think of this poem as the beginning of my forties, although I was well into my forties when it got published.
One of the things that I talk about when I teach is the liberating idea that poetry need not be true, even if the Library of Congress classification system lumps it in with nonfiction. And yet, here I am, offering this poem of autobiographical grappling, the true events of the deaths of Rocky and John.
I knew both of them from the music scene in DC, and surprisingly, all three of us made it into our forties. John was one of the first friends I knew to have a child, and he proudly affixed his daughter’s name in electrical tape on the back of his white Gibson Les Paul studio. During gigs with his handful of bands, he’d often shyly turn the guitar over and look at the tape, as if admiring this wondrous thing he’d done. Rocky was a bon vivant, hands in a million things. He’d owned a deli and a nightclub and promoted some parties at abandoned churches and was really good at making wherever you were, even if it was just watching TV at his house in South Arlington, feel like a party. John and Rocky both died, coincidentally and unexpectedly, within 30 hours of each other.
The poem came from a series of emails with a friend of mine, also a poet, wherein we were discussing the time-honored trope of lives we could have led, but did not. There are dozens, for each of us; it’s like one of those episodes of Star Trek, where one little change in the timeline makes the population of Earth 9 billion, all Borg.
I wished for a time when I could change the timeline and get the friends I have back. So many of them are gone now. The numbers keep growing, although I suppose that happens to all of us.
I made this poem, and it turned out that I had more to say on the subject. That little something else became an essay, called “People Who Died.”