my bucket list

  1. Not to feel the chill breath
    of death
    prickling on my shoulder
    every time I joke about getting older
  2. And not to FEAR Death
    but see it in a wider, more holistic context
    everything that lives must die
    ours is not to reason why
    (but exercise and early nights
    are probably still good advice)
  3. To finally see
    life’s definitely
    not all about me
    (I mean – in the history of this planet
    roughly 117 billion people
    started out foetal
    which is the best way to understand
    roughly where I stand
    on the whole, bucket list phenomenon
    and why I’m not a bit more forthcomenon)
  4. I wouldn’t mind seeing the pyramids, though

a few helpful lines on death

Death is a Big Bargain Bucket O’Nuffin
an Interplanetary Egg Mcmuffin
without the Egg
just an infinity of empty bun instead

When you look at a pigeon
do you ever wonder what religion
it has, or hasn’t?
or if religion is entirely absent
in fowl?
and how’ll
you cope
if you get to the pearly gates and ask if they have any birds in there and they say nope?

the fact is
death as an act is
entirely passive
but the overall impact is massive
because really it’s everything
and nothing
all at once
and comes at a person on multiple fronts
from the holiest saints to the most unutterable non-saintly characters

if anyone ever frowns, looks me in the eye
and asks what I think happens when you die
I sigh
and try
to look confident
say I’m not hindu or muslim or protestant
but just a plain ol’ human kinda animal
admittedly particularly cute and adaptable
outward looking, international
but for all this, just a humble ol’ organism
suffering from a dose of cellular determinism
trying to make sense of being alive
and doing okay before I die

But you haven’t answered my question!
you shout in my general direction
your face red with congestion
(try breathing exercises is my suggestion)

so to recap
before I get knee-capped

I think death
is more than just a clinical absence of breath
no – that’s just the physical
it might help to imagine the umbilical
stretching toward
from the infinite womb
of Gaia, I presume
(which is to say
That Infinite Thing that brought you here today)

In other words, the Great Fertile Nothing
you got popped outta that day with a whole lotta huffing
THAT’S where you’ll be heading
the opposite of begetting
which shouldn’t be upsetting
because it’s the norm
a return to the YOU before YOU were born
i.e. Nowhere
which is only fair
because if everyone went and lived forever
we’d be jammed up with clouds and harps and whatever

Religion? – I get it
but in my case forget it
I’ll live my life and do my best
then dive in the void for a nice long rest

Reworked funeral poem

Death is nothing at all
it does not count
it’s just nature’s way
of putting the empties out

Everything remains exactly as it was.
I am I (dead)
and you are you,
(playing the kazoo
or whatever the hell it is you do
to pass the time when I’m all through)

Call me by the old familiar name
(but if it’s all the same
as embarrassing names go
I’d rather you kept it on the down low)

Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed of late.
(but not at the graveside because it doesn’t look great)
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
(And if creditors come calling, pay for me.)
Let my name be the household curse it ever was
(Me more than anyone sorry for your loss)

Life means all that it ever meant.
A life well lived now a life well spent
There is absolute and unbroken continuity.
(except for that business with the phoney annuity)

Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
(I’m still around but I look a fright)
and if I am but waiting for you, for an interval,
think of me more root vegetable than mineral

All is well (for you)
Nothing is hurt (except you-know-who)
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
(just try not to scream when I knock on the door)

Stanley the Lurcher shares a few comforting lines on Death

Isaac Newton, Cleopatra, Shakespeare – all died
No wonder I’m reluctant to go outside

Dying is as natural as scratching your ears
it just goes on a few more years

Death is the undiscovered country from whose bourn no lurcher returns
just a few less treats and a few more worms

I think I speak for most dogs
when I say there’s no such thing as ghost dogs

Verily did’st I meet Death waiting in the market
and ventur’d most bravely to tug its cloak and task it
What is Death? And lo! it did blow a wormy gasket
so loudly did it laugh-eth
and ghastly did gaspeth
embarrassed was I the joke not to graspeth
tempted to say forget my question – sorry I ask’d it
for I woulds’t feel bad if Death suddenly cark’d it
but Death doing its best its corpsing to mask it
sayeth Why! Death be but a snooze in an underground basket!
(and I came from that place thinking Death may be sick
but jes’ ‘cos you’re eternal why be a dick)

a short waltz on a beach at the end of the world

wade naked in the water
lay dreaming by the lake
angels will blow the way to go
devils only know about snakes
so when the sun comes rolling in
and shadows steal the land

well c’mon take my hand
out on the sand
and we’ll dance our death away

I swear I’m never gonna run again
I swear I’m never gonna quit
life’s a big peach just outta reach
when you think of it
but if you say we’ll win someday
I’ll do my best, goddamn

so c’mon take my hand
out on the sand
and we’ll dance our death away

life’s but a walking shadow

I’ve quit a lot of things in my time, believe me
jobs, school, college – all defeated me
the relationships
I let slip
even this poem I’m writing today
will no doubt end up going the same way

‘You lack sticking power’, mum used to say
when I’d tell her the latest thing I’d thrown away
‘You have to learn to grin and bear it’
(and now here comes the scary bit:)

‘What? You mean – like a SKULL?’
‘How’s THAT an encouraging image at all?’

Ever since then
skulls have been an emblem
of forbearance, or tenacity
or that faintly annoying, saintly kinda capacity
for gritting your teeth and seeing things through
(Yeah? And look where THAT philosophy gets you)

Now mum’s dead
and it has to be said
(although I’m wary of sharing it)
infinitely grinning and bearing it

Because let’s face it (pun intended)
Death is just sticking power super-extended
Absolutely no-one bails on death
‘Out, out brief candle,’ said Macbeth
and that was a guy who knew quite a bit
being up to his neck in it

dad comes back (I know, right – AGAIN?)

as usual he appears with fluorescent flair
yaahing & woo-hooing down the stairs
a halo of ghastly green worms for hair
waving his shroud emphatically
a little melodramatically
it seems to me
as I know he was buried in a suit
but maybe he hired the shroud for the shoot
maybe there’s an undead outfitters
called Zombie & sons, or Just Jitters
I’ve really no idea
I’m getting off-point here
which is
ghouls and vampires and such
none of that bothers me all that much
but ghosts have got my attention good
since dad landed back in the neighbourhood

he wails to me
waving his arms unconvincingly

Okay, okay
I say
Let’s just drop the LOOK AT ME I’M SO DEAD act
I think I can take it as a flatline fact
since I saw you unplugged in ITU
(the scariest thing I saw anyone do)
so you can save the sulphur
sit on that sofa
and rest your mouldy old bones a minute
as far as hauntings go I’ve reached my limit
rest, rest, perturbed spirit
maybe it’ll make for an easier visit

and to my surprise
he complies

so – tell me – dad
this may sound mad
but what’s it like being dead?

he scratches his shiny head
lovingly examines his
long white phalanges
then smiles at me
and carries on more conversationally

S’okay he says
it’s had a bad press
are the hours good? yes
there’s very little stress
so unless
you’re under some kinda spiritual duress
or feel the need to confess
or maybe impress
the need for vengeance on someone who’s transgressed
I’d have to say, for me at least, it’s been a success

I say
that’s nice to hear
but – to be clear
why are you here?
if death’s such a doozy
why d’ya treat the place like a goddamn jacuzzi?
jumping in and out
waving your arms and legs about
lots of steam
see what I mean?

well, the metaphor’s a mess
but I guess
I can see where you’re coming from
and judging from
your current demeanour
I think you’d be keener
if I dropped by a little less often?
but then – wouldn’t I be forgotten?

no – no, you wouldn’t
so I shouldn’t
take that as a reason for haunting
continued contact I’m fully supporting
just not with all this phonus balonus
maybe you could phone us?
or skype?
or a text if you can type?

alright! he says
you’ve made your case!
I was never any good at face-to-face
but promise me I can swing by soon
anytime there’s a blood red moon

so I say naturally dad, of course
when suddenly he rises with the force
of a Marvel special effects team
and roars off with a chilling banshee scream
and the ceiling rends and ripples
and the hissing cat’s hair bristles
and the lights all surge and pop
and dogs in the street all howl without stop
and the curtains snap and whip
and the carpets ruck and rip
and the chairs all flip
and I’m sitting trembling saying what the shit

then a moment of silence

the sound of distant sirens

then I hear dad whispering so low I almost miss it
sorry Jim – couldn’t resist it

alas poor rat

we saw a dead rat at a tourist spot
now – don’t panic – I’m not
about to say this place
was a disgrace
I’m not saying for one moment
it’s got a problem with rodents
in fact it was properly picturesque
walks and climbs, sites of interest
places to wander, spectacular views
parking was a nightmare but what can you do?
no – it was an isolated incident
a tragic death coincident
with our innocent
day out
a poor rodent stretched out
on the cliff walk
that we tiptoed round
and talked about

‘you’re never more than 6 feet away from a rat’
isn’t that
some kinda fact?
(no – as it turns out
it’s just when they were thinking about
rats in 1909
which they obviously did from time to time
they came up with that catchy line
basically assuming
one rat for every human
and spacing them equally about the country
which isn’t something rats do naturally
they tend to stick together for company
looking at it sensibly
if you only count the rats in urban areas
the actual numbers are way less scarier
just over three million
scurrying around the human dominion
so ‘you’re never more than 164 feet from a rat’
would be a bit more accurate
so we’ll say thanks for the meme and leave it at that)

this particular item
sprawled ad infinitem
ex member of the chordate phylum
was lying with its paws drawn up to its head
like me with the duvet when I go to bed
and seemed so peaceful in this position
creeping by seemed a rude imposition
it was just this weird juxtaposition
a poignant opposition
rat versus
the universe
infinity or day out
the whole thing played out
on a happy, sunny day by the sea
and this tiny existential tragedy
sat uneasily
with me
but mostly
as a potential subject for poetry
and admittedly
despite my Munchian scream
it didn’t put me off my vanilla ice cream

Porthgain, Pembrokeshire. July 2021

memento mori

it’s good to acknowledge Death
at least once a day
to sit across from Death
pass it a cup of tea, a ginger nut
(the sensible choice
plain, spicy,
but not too fancy)
say hey Death whassup?
but really mean it
listen to what it has to say
where it’s been, who it’s seen that day
don’t try to dominate the conversation
and don’t expect great revelations
Death will be tired
full of strange specifics
that might seem overwhelming
unless you relax
and let them wash over you
a bit like listening to music
Death will appreciate your attention
it’s basically good manners
also, it means that
when Death comes for you
it won’t be quite so awkward
you’ll have a relationship
spared those weird silences
moonlight on the flex of a bone
easier, more relaxed
you can shake hands
sigh about the way these things go
get down to business

death gets cute

and death didst come to me as in a dream
and I didst sit bolt upright in bed and scream
and my pajamas verily most heavily didst cream

Jiiiiiimmmmmmmyyyyyy he said
floating sulphurously over the bed

am I dead I said
no don’t worry he said
at least not yet

so what the hell is it
some kinda sick social visit

so…I don’t know… it was just getting boring
he said, yawning
then carefully resetting his jaw in the sling
he had to wear
round his skull instead of hair
to keep his jaw there

what d’ya mean – eternity?
I mean – you’ve got my sympathy
mate, but as far as I can see
that’s nothing to do with me
you’re having a laugh
I’ve got to get up in an hour and a half

somebody’s grumpy he said
maybe you should try going to bed
a weensy bit earlier at night
then maybe you wouldn’t be so clippy, alright?

yeah? well I heard death could be agonising
but I’d rather have that than patronising

don’t be mean, he said
sadly descending to the foot of the bed
where he smouldered with a strange intensity
that lacked discernible heat or density
which I have to admit was all pretty new to me

sorry, I said – you caught me off guard
I try to be understanding but it’s hard
especially when you’re so freakin’ charred
does that mean hell is hot
or not
is there a God?
Jesus Christ I hope not

actually no there isn’t
he sighed
carefully putting his scythe aside
crooking one bony knee over the other
idly picking fluff from my cover

you see – Jimmy – God is just a story you tell
about angels, prophets, heaven and hell
a touching way of making sense
of the fundamental questions of existence
to which the answer is oxygen and carbon
and if I’ve rocked your world I beg your pardon

okay – so – I don’t get it
Death comes to visit
and you want me to forget it?

I’m an allegory, dear
a gorgeous but hokey souvenir
a byproduct of consciousness
he said, clapping his phalanges
you mortals really are such a tease
you ask about God – well…take a look around
there are millions of deities to be found
in any place you care to look
from Weston-super-Mare to Çatalhöyük
I could talk you through the creation myths
but there’s nothing duller than shopping lists

he gaped at me
seemingly quite happily
with what I took to be affection
and I have to admit the conversation
was heading in a wholly unexpected direction

so.. how am I supposed to feel
now that I know that God’s not real?

Who knows? said Death as the clock struck twelve
you’ll just have to figure it out for yourself
and with a hopelessly boney stamp
and an inexplicable but theatrical dimming of the lamp
he flashed me a look that was scary but appealing
then shot straight up through the bedroom ceiling

I sat there wondering what I’d just seen
I mean
for someone supposedly fictional
he was pretty vocal and visual

but just as I lay back on the pillow
there was another booming billow
of fire and smoke
and the very same cloaky bloke
came floating back

Whaaaat? I said
sitting up in bed
Was that all a joke?
Were you toying with me?
Don’t be silly
he said
tip-toeing round the bed
trying to act all cool & blythe
I just came back to fetch my scythe