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
especially
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
witches
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

‘Jiiiiiiiimmmmmmmmeeeeeeee’
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

hey!
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?

alright! he says
yes!
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
anyway
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
inevitably
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
gappily
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

me & the 4th horse

I only finished this late last night
says DEATH, stepping up to the mic
it’s a bit rough round the edges. I hope it’s alright
he stands on the stage in his heavy black cloak
a fidgety, rickety kinda bloke
blinking deep in his sockets
fumbling around in his pockets
hold this, he says, handing his scythe
to the MC standing off to the side
who immediately takes a jokey swipe
at the heckler down front who’d been difficult all night
inadvertently and catastrophically
pitching him headfirst into purgatory
(which got the biggest laugh all night, incidentally)
don’t says DEATH, you’ll get me fired
you’re only supposed to do it when the punters have expired
hold still while I sort out my shit
I’ll be with you in a little bit

there’s an awkward silence

not because of the violence
but because we’ve had quite enough
of poets who don’t know their stuff
and say they’ve only just written the thing
because really what they’re saying
– the subtle psychological game they’re playing –
is… if you DON’T like it – well – I wrote it on the fly
but if you DO – think how much better it’ll be when I TRY

anyway – back to DEATH
who’s found his notes and taking a breath
casting his doomy countenance
around the audience
with a wide, dry and lipless grin
forty percent dentures, sixty percent chin

oh-kaaaaaay he says, awkwardly waving his notes
hope you like it (phalangeal air quotes)

but I have to admit I kinda zone out
when I get the gist of what it’s about
(a lot of hokey sturm und drang
the meaning of life….yaddah yaddah…. klang)
and I start to worry about his ride
the bloodless nag with the blazing eyes
tied up to a lamppost outside
that’s no place for a horse of the apocalypse
– so I sneak out and buy it some fish and chips
and yeah – I know – I shoulda got hay
but it was late and I just didn’t fancy it – OK?

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now, honey – you KNOW it’s not my time

I’m an easy going bloke
but when Death slips off his cloak
dumps his scythe
outside
with a clatter
is all like ‘Death’s here and nothing else matters’
hard-heels it into my hotel room
and then ‘Boom!’
throws his bony arse down on the bed, uninvited
starts bouncing around like he’s utterly fucking delighted
honestly? I’m not the least bit excited
‘Honey?’ I tell him ‘Enough of this shit.
Stop it. Just quit.
Grab your stuff and git.
So you’re the Scourge? The Reaper? The Flail?
Well, good for you, girlfriend. Cheque’s in the mail.
I’m sorry for any disappointment
but next time – okay? – make a motherfucking appointment

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fred? dead?

that’s Fred, smiling in his judo gi
throwing me with a casual flick of his knee
so easily and brutally
that all my bones sequentially crack
as I come down hard with a graceless smack
impressing my body in the dojo mat
and lie there floundering flat on my back
when he kneels and gently holds my hand
till I feel well enough to stand
and carry on with the lesson as planned

that’s Fred, belting out Ring of Fire
driving his truck as the flames went higher
down the long straight roads of Cambridgeshire
butcher to butcher with cargoes of meat
slapping the wheel as he keeps the beat
through fields of maize and plains of wheat
and rows of sprouts and sugar beet
with his bloody cap and rubber boots
salmon sandwiches and juicy fruits
till he’s out to the pub in his fat black suit

that’s Fred, riding around in a Bentley
reading stocks and shares intently
chasing a million evidently
buying old houses in the poorer quarters
doing them up with sweat and mortar
renting them out to the factory workers
giving short shrift to the news reporters
and the next thing you know
he’s setting up shop on the ring road
diversifying his portfolio

that’s Fred, lying in a silk-lined casket
ten days after his heart blew a gasket
his tax returns shredded in a waste paper basket
and I can’t believe he’s really dead
a force of nature the preacher said
strong in body, stronger in head
improvising A to Z
and I think of him standing out on the mat
grabbing my collar and throwing me flat
then bowing and vanishing – and that was that

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