Friday, September 30, 2011

Elegy


I am seventy-five years old. I have never watched another human die. On only a few occasions have I seen animals other than insects die. It's not that death hasn't been happening all around me. Loved ones and friends have passed away. Generations of wild creatures have flourished in my presence, then met their demise. But the act of dying has been mostly invisible.

I have been spared the grim harvestings of famine, plague and war. Death, therefore, is a kind of abstraction. I know that it happens in equal measure to the replenishments of birth, but, for me, it has mostly happened in secret. "I suppose it is just as well," wrote Lewis Thomas, in one of his essays; "If the earth were otherwise, and the dying were done in the open, with the dead there to be looked at, we would never have it out of our minds."

So I'm stopped in my tracks by this mortal tableau, this slip of a snake, called from hiding by one of the last hot days of summer, culled by a car on the college drive that is part of my Path (click to enlarge). Sylvia Plath has a poem about a dead snake, called Medallion. Suddenly I understand her title. The tableau has the sinuous quality of an engraving, mortality cast in bronze.

The blood, the flies. The unhinged grin. The death's mask. The twist of flesh leaking crimson. The slither frozen in time. The lop-sided valentine from the other side, the love knot.