Writers who continue to write in old age—and as we live longer there are more and more such writers—often seek to write about death, which is not a pretty subject. Not a poetic subject. Except that it is a poetic subject by virtue of the poets writing about it. In other centuries many poets touched on the subject of death—we think particularly of Keats—but in our current century medicine stretches out the dying process, and poets are spending more of their lives living the process of dying. Dying is incremental, as a friend once pointed out to me when I exclaimed that I was falling apart piece by piece. “You don’t get it,” he said. “That’s how we die. Piece by piece.”
Well, that woke me up. Until then I must have been under the illusion that time would continue at its normal pace. To me that meant that I would go on writing more or less forever. Until, that is, some unforeseen tragedy shattered my world. A stroke, I figured, as I’d already had a silent stroke. I told my husband I didn’t want any extraordinary measures taken. I said, “If I can’t read, can’t reason, can’t write, or can’t listen to good music, let me go. In fact, shoot me.”
“Good” means Bach and Beethoven, a little Mozart, some modern compositions. Brahms’s Symphonies. Some Mendelssohn. Shostakovich. Hindemith. I could go on, but I won’t.
Having been awakened, I made lists of what I wanted to get done in the time remaining. A handbook about how to write better. Several collections of poetry. A book of flash fiction. A New and Selected Stories. A Complete Poems.
Now, I am not famous. I don’t have the big prizes. But I believe in my work. In spite of myself. Yes, in spite of myself, I believe in my work. Is this irrational? Maybe so. Other writers have been irrational, although I think I’m pretty sane. I’m so sane I make lists and check stuff off and send out Christmas cards and send toys to my deceased sister’s step-grandchildren. I fret about our finances. I pick off the grasses and small sticks our little dog brings in in his fur. Could one be any saner?
Long ago I planned to write a bookshelf of books. A number of them have been published. Some of the books I abandoned. Some I finished but couldn’t place. I have no agent. Though now that I’m focusing on poetry, an agent is unnecessary.
I’m still trying to finish the bookshelf. Naturally enough, now that I am as old as I am, some of the poems are about death. Death in WWII. In Vietnam. In Syria. Other poems curate memories of travel and the things I have seen. And still others explore the phenomena of physics. It takes me a long time to finish poems but I love writing them. I also love revising them. I like them. I’m proud of them.
I thank my friend for waking me up. Without his warning, I might have waited too long to do what I need to do. I will keep doing what I need to do as long as possible. May that be long, or long enough.
Kelly Cherry is the author of numerous books of fiction, poetry, memoir, essay, and criticism. Her most recent poetry collection is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. She also recently published Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories (Press 53); A Kelly Cherry Reader (Stephen F. Austin State University Press); A Kind of Dream: Stories (University of Wisconsin Press); and a poetry chapbook titled Physics for Poets (Unicorn Press). She has received, among other honors, three PEN/Syndicated Fiction Awards, the Hanes Prize, and the Dictionary of Literary Biography Award for Short Fiction. (updated 2017)