But the night can also be a time when the young couple “knocks front teeth” and feels the sudden terror of that. The night can be rife with danger: dark, too quiet, supine, riddled with the regrets of the day’s long life. It can be fraught with desires and the futility to act on them. A wished-for futurity that won’t come. It can be a time when the heart races, and the only way to slow it is to get up, open the front door and, as if enacting Nietzsche’s nudge to “Remain faithful to the earth,” step out into the world and take a deep breath under the little afterlives of its street lamps.
Now that I think of it, I’ve always conflated nighttime with dying, and dying with its popular repositories: the suffocating stillness of the coffin or urn. Nighttime tends to coax the neuroses from me. I’d marvel at my college roommate, who claimed he wasn’t afraid of death, not even at night, that he could fall sleep like that – although this was a person who would ace tests without studying and eat three “Gus burgers” in one sitting. How, I wondered, could gastrointestinal fortitude ensure existential poise? The hell was your secret, M.?
Sometime in college I encountered this stanza, the final one in Gerhard Tersteegen’s “Prayers for Fellow Prisoners”:
As a secular Jew, I’d never read a Christian text that felt so poignant. I memorized it so that I could have it, recite it, scare away the panic, which didn’t come often, but came hard when it did. And it worked. It soothed me to say it aloud. I wanted my poem, “On being mortified,” now that I think of it, to have this same incantatory effect, to be its own “Prayer for Fellow Prisoners.” (This “now that I think of it” comes as no surprise. Writing does this, doesn’t it? Writing has always made me think about a subject with deep attention, even the unsettling ones. The blank page is the best listener. In this way the blank page can seem like the best speaker, and we the ecstatic vessel, although that to me is simply the poet’s shock at hearing his own voice cutting through the silence. Shock because silence is hard to come by. Writing grants us the silence to fill. This goes for poem-writing and blog-writing alike.)Each day tells the othermy life is but a journeyto great and endless life.O sweetness of eternity,may my heart grow to love thee:my home is not in time's strife.
What I’ve written is indeed a poem about mortality. What poem isn’t? But it’s also about how age, and its attendant wisdoms, and its flimsy wishes, has colored my perceptions of mortality. Perhaps the poem not only traces my own feelings about death, but wills my feelings about it toward acceptance and grace. Yes, dying will be quiet, like “worm-slither down a killdeer’s gullet,” or like “a glacier ablating,” which from afar is gentle and artistic, but up close, I can only imagine the clamor. I’m somewhere between the young couple – who’s “too far from” dying, who knocks teeth softly but still “[feels] their mouths / burst like raindrops in glassy plosives, hitting the gutter // with a mortal glottal stop” – somewhere between them and the Rilke-ian elder who knows that death is just an extension of life. Just a long silence to be filled.
Alex Chertok has work published or forthcoming in The Cincinnati Review, Barrow Street, 32 Poems, Bat City Review, The Journal, and Cimarron Review, among others. He was awarded a fellowship to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and has recently completed his MFA degree at Cornell University, where he is currently a Lecturer.