Sunday, September 14, 2008

On Death in Western Culture

The following is the current column from American Life in Poetry. I was moved enough by the poem to register in order to be allowed to reprint the column in its entirety. I thought it was something readers of this column would find meaningful.

I was struck while reading this that when Western writers confront death, their sensibility often shifts to an Eastern tone. Obviously, we all die. Somehow in the West, we compartmentalize life to such an extent that death goes over here. When reading the great Eastern writers and poets, death seems always to be present.

None of these reflections, though sparked by his poem, have anything to do with Stuart Kestenbaum per se. They are just the not-particularly-original, though hopefully somewhat pertinent, observations of someone who is currently steeped in Eastern poetry.


American Life in Poetry: Column 181

Stuart Kestenbaum, the author of this week's poem,

lost his brother Howard in the destruction of the twin towers of the

World Trade Center. We thought it appropriate to commemorate the

events of September 11, 2001, by sharing this poem. The poet is the

director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle, Maine.

Prayer for the Dead

The light snow started late last night and continued

all night long while I slept and could hear it occasionally

enter my sleep, where I dreamed my brother

was alive again and possessing the beauty of youth, aware

that he would be leaving again shortly and that is the lesson

of the snow falling and of the seeds of death that are in everything

that is born: we are here for a moment

of a story that is longer than all of us and few of us

remember, the wind is blowing out of someplace

we don't know, and each moment contains rhythms

within rhythms, and if you discover some old piece

of your own writing, or an old photograph,

you may not remember that it was you and even if it was once you,

it's not you now, not this moment that the synapses fire

and your hands move to cover your face in a gesture

of grief and remembrance.

Stuart Kestenbaum

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation
(, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also
supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-
Lincoln. Poem copyright © 2007 by Stuart Kestenbaum. Reprinted

from "Prayers & Run-on Sentences," Deerbook Editions, 2007, by
permission of Stuart Kestenbaum. Introduction copyright © 2008
by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser,
served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the
Library of Congress
from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited




Charles Gramlich said...

Very nice. I really like the line: "of a story that is longer than all of us"

I haven't thought of that, but it's comforting in a way.

Poet Hound said...

That was a beautiful poem, thank you.

grh said...

Without my death :: I would have nowhere to turn

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Charles, yes, indeed, and I think there is really a touch of the East in that ... that comfort.

PH, thanks. I thought it might resonate.

G, there it is, in one cogent, lyrical line. Thanks.


Greg Schwartz said...

that's a great poem. thanks for registering & sharing it with us.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Greg, you are welcome. We'll see how productive it might be. I like Kooser's attraction to plain speaking work, but a lot of what I've read has missed the mark or, rather, perhaps not come up to it. What has been good, like "Prayer for the Dead," has been very good, indeed.