Thursday, May 31, 2012

May 31: John Keats, "This Living Hand," New Poem

Any person familiar with the poetry of John Keats is probably familiar with the story of his tragic death from tuberculosis at the age of 26.  Keats was a contemporary of the romantic poets Byron and Shelley.  He started publishing his work only four years before he died in Rome.

If you read Keats' poetry, there is, for me, a kind of drive to embrace the beauty of the world.  Keats seemed to know his time was limited, and many of his poems reflect this knowledge, I think.  The poem below, probably written around 1819 (two years before his death), contains this consciousness of mortality.  Keats is literally reaching through the "dead" lines of the poem and grasping the reader's hand.  The act of reading allows Keats to live and breathe again.  The poem is even more poignant considering how close to the end of life Keats was.

This Living Hand

By: John Keats

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.

Keats literally seems to be standing beside you when you read this poem, looking over your shoulder, haunting your day, as he says.  In his short life, Keats had a profound impact on English romantic poetry.  His prolonged suffering near the end of his life  isn't reflected at all in his death mask, seen in the picture below.  Keats seems simply to be asleep, resting after a long day of writing.
The death mask of John Keats
The poem I wrote today is in response to Keats' "This Living Hand."  I'm writing about my wife's grandmother, a woman now in her ninetieth decade of life.  She has outlived her husband and both her children.  She seems to be a shell of the person she once was.  That's what my poem is about.  It's about living.  It's about dying.  It's about surviving.

Saint Marty is two for two.  Two new poems in two days.

This Dying Hand

This dying hand, brittle as wax paper,
Flutters against my fingers, pupa or cocoon
For its ninety-three years of teaspoons,
Laundry, Christmas turkeys stuffed
With rutabaga, onion, black pepper,
Tastes that sit in throat and eye
Like loss, make her skin split, open—see it!—
Silk chrysalis of soul.

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