The Poetry of Death


I’ve just finished Rachel Joyce’s novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. It’s one of those rare books that lingers in the imagination and continues to reveal itself long after the last page. Joyce has a gift of taking the most ordinary characters and making them bearers of the most haunting and significant questions about life – questions about meaning and futility, mortality and loss, yearning and failure, and the radiant fragility of joy. I often wept as I listened.


In the end, for me the book was about making our peace with life by making our peace with death (no spoilers). It’s a story of “Two small figures against the black waves”. (p. 320) While the pilgrimage in question isn’t religious, the questions that believers ask of life haunt the story, like “nuns’ voices … woven in song”. (p. 317)


There was a subtle resonance between some of themes of the book and the thoughts that often drift through my mind when I walk on the beach at the beginning and end of each day – the realization that we owe much of the beauty of our world to the fact that every living being must die. To say this is not to deny the wrenching agony that results when death comes to those we love or when we contemplate our own leaving of this wondrous planet and all its glorious life forms, but there are moments when death speaks in a different voice. Great writers sometimes create a gap in the order of things so that we can allow death’s voice to be heard, but nature is the sublime poet of death’s wordless hymn to the world of the living.


As I walk along the shore and marvel at the intricate and unique perfection of every seashell, I remind myself that these are the delicate legacy of creatures that once were alive as I am. I watch the seagulls soaring up and dropping shells on the beach then feasting on the small soft bodies inside, and I marvel at life’s interdependent dependence on the fact that everything dies.



I recently discovered Margaret Atwood’s poem, All Bread while listening to Pádraig Ó Tuama's Poetry Unbound podcasts, and it left me thinking how every aspect of life is nurtured by the living beings that give their lives for us:


“All Bread,” by Margaret Atwood:


“All bread is made of wood,

cow dung, packed brown moss,

the bodies of dead animals, the teeth

and backbones, what is left

after the ravens. This dirt

flows through the stems into the grain,

into the arm, nine strokes

of the axe, skin from a tree,

good water which is the first

gift, four hours.


Live burial under a moist cloth,

a silver dish, the row

of white famine bellies

swollen and taut in the oven,

lungfuls of warm breath stopped

in the heat from an old sun.


Good bread has the salt taste

of your hands after nine

strokes of the axe, the salt

taste of your mouth, it smells

of its own small death, of the deaths

before and after.


Lift these ashes

into your mouth, your blood;

to know what you devour

is to consecrate it,

almost. All bread must be broken

so it can be shared. Together

we eat this earth.”


I photograph the dead birds that are washed up by the tide, because there is such eloquence in their sightless gaze and in the cruciform spread of their wings, such a silent sermon about beauty, vulnerability and mortality. Eyes open and beaks stretched out, these birds seem to be asking something of us, something to do with our responsibility and our carelessness, our destructiveness yes, but also our creaturely solidarity. We too were once warm and alive like you, they say. We too once breathed the air you breathe and shared the sun and the moon, the ocean and the wide high sky. Live while you can, and let others live – but don’t hold on too tight. There is grace in letting go. Look at me, say the birds, and let your spirit soar while you still can.



To stand on the beach and gaze out at the horizon is to realize how small we are, and how vast is this phenomenon of being that we find ourselves within, blessed and cursed with memory and imagination, and with language that never quite allows us to say what we mean. One has to be a creature of instinct and birdsong, of the wide embrace of the fullness of being in every given moment, to be truly and deeply and fully oneself. One has to be less than or more than human, not caught in this in-between space of being a little lower than the angels and more bewildered than the beasts. As humans, we are both and neither animals and gods, and therefore we have no words to describe our place in the order of things. It’s the mysticism of the ordinary, which one of the characters in Rachel Joyce’s novel comes to realize: “If we can’t be open, … if we can’t accept what we don’t know, there really is no hope.” (p. 317)



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