A while back I posted First Impressions, a poem about what I recalled then as my first experience with death. I am no longer sure that was “my first encounter with death” even though it was definitely about my first experience of death in the family.
There was a little boy, my kindergarten classmate and son of a neighbour/very close pal of my mother, who passed on in infancy, possibly younger than five but definitely not older than 7. I also remember another neighbourhood boy who was playing with the older children when he got ‘shocked’ by a wire grounding an electric pole that had somehow become live. And there was a girl who drowned going after her ‘basin’ that was being carried out to sea by the tides. Mother kept me away from these death scenes but there was a lot of talk about the incidents around my home that left me with very vivid images of what had happened.
I did get to see the death scene of a child that had just died in the village where I was born and lived for the first seven years of life. He had some unfortunate contact with a huge dump truck on the beach. That gruesome scene of a boy separated from his brain came back and worked its way into a poem years, years later. Death of a Man, below, is not entirely based on that one incident. Some of the telling of how it went down is imagined and the bit about the man lifting the dead boy’s head and saying he was ugly came from another story.
Where I grew up, a wake for the deceased traditionally took place in the house of the person who passed. All and sundry were free to come and generally, irreverence ruled the night. At some point, someone would say or do something that would cause laughter to run riot through the crowd of mourners. It was no cost therapy and helped the bereaved heal. Normally, there was a big wake on the day of death and an ‘eight days’ wake a week later. Some homes did a ‘9 days’ with the same solemn hymns on the inside, lots of folk songs on the outside and jokes performed as one would a comedy routine. The wakes had lots of playing of games and spilling of deep and dark secrets about the dead, the living and the grieving – sometimes in the most coarse and colourful language. it all went down with loads of boozing.
Singing ‘Konte’ was also a big part of these wakes – konte (ballads) composed on the spur of the moment were generally used by the singers to chastise someone or reveal their shenanigans. Even for those closest to the one who passed, these scenes of merriment and public revelation, especially in flashback days later, helped break up moments of intense pain over the loss of loved ones.
Nobody left these places feeling sad. Please don’t be when you read this poem.
Death of a Man
The flash of switch blade on the metal
Of a speeding truck’s side split agape
The eggshell of his head, out and upward, a
*Chalaza of scalp balanced the pieces, brain
Plopped like yolk onto the saucer of sea sand.
Fishermen and beachfront neighbours ran
To the cry of a witness struck dumb by the
Flying eye, how alive it seemed, piercing
His comprehension of what had happened.
Passers-by piled, took up the howling,
One man noted, mid-cry, how death had not
Saved the poor boy from his ugliness, held
Up the head, lifted a somber mood as sorrow
Dissipated in a hollering sea gust, laughter at
The death of a man – any meaning for anyone.
** Chalaza: membrane holding yolk suspended inside egg shell