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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 6, Number 2, June 2012


Charles D. Tarlton
Oakland, California, USA

Eleven Dialogues on Dying: Carmody and Blight

—in memory of Jim Percey


CARMODY: It's taken such a long time to grow this old, but that seems beside the point now.
BLIGHT: Marching to the end. We're always on the march.

On the telephone I learn between sobs and caught breaths that my oldest friend is being moved to hospice—do I want to come and see him? When he left California decades ago to return to Pennsylvania to teach, I drove all night down from Berkeley to Long Beach to say goodbye to him, and he was waiting on his front porch for me with a pitcher of Manhattans. I will not make this trip now, however, partly because I am afraid it would undermine a lifetime's memories, but, mainly, because I don't think I could stand it.

it's always now
in this dance of memories
macabre turnings
in a black wind, around
our eyes persistent gnats

the past has gone
before us, all that's left
each fraction as whispered
happening a given day

dead in my eyes
his life memorialized
what little's left
I throw my heart at clouds
on the wind going east


CARMODY: I am afraid of blood, the sight, even the very idea, of blood. [Pause.] Red, I love red, however.
BLIGHT: Colors and their quick associations; black as night, perhaps, but I think right away of blood in the stool.

Down in the village the roads are clogged with cars, like sick arteries. Up here in the hills the roads are empty and quiet—rainless ruts, teeth in a buried head. The sun is shining; the breezes make the branches sway, day sits right down upon us. Sounds of life come from far away, nothing up close.

my head pulses
to the crowding up of things
a dead squirrel
in the road, the ravenous
tentative crows hopping

a faucet drips
its watery bolero
in all the rooms
bad thoughts come marching
to its flimsy drumbeat

with a raw joke
and a crude cartoon of Death's
head, black on white
we try to keep on laughing
at jokes about abattoirs


CARMODY: Life and death, immorality and hereafter—I see in them manifest the way day ends, the gradual attenuation of the light, the cool coming in of darkness [Satisfied.]
BLIGHT: If only we could see in the dark.
[Pause.] Are you afraid of the dark?

"We'll find out soon enough," the philosopher said. "Arguments both for and against the afterlife are equally imaginary." Sister Mary Bridget turned to me and asked: "Does an assertion without proof have the same logical standing as the doubt that questions it?" She laughed, then gave a quick wave with her hand, and pulled an egg out of my ear.

in a wren's eye
as I held him in my hand
I saw our deaths
a tiny light flickered out
shiny dark surfaces dulled

it's metaphor
you see (even when you don't)
in the darkness
with a magical black light
edges fade to shadows

when you're sleeping
or anaesthetized you're still
exactly where?
coming in or going out
time just has no meaning


CARMODY: Do you know the worst thing? No? Well, I'll tell you the worst thing. The worst thing is how you feel guilty when someone you know is dying . . . you just feel terrible.
BLIGHT: Imagine how they feel.

Take any newspaper . . . how many obituaries every day? Ten? Fifty? My God, look at the New York Times. And of all the people who die, how many even get into the paper? Or think about India, or Africa. Dying all over the place—dying, dying, dying. It's enough to make you sick.

in hospitals
they wash their hands so often
you'd think the skin
might come off—"Out, damned spot! out!"
plague's most hermetic question

how would you like
to be the oncologist
that cancer guy
looking death right in the eye
behind his prognoses

it's like a lake
these rivers flow into it
and they flow out
humanity's the wide spot
where the ebb and flow slow down


CARMODY: What must seem enormous to the person dying, i.e., the fact of their dying, can often seem trivial to others. [Pause.] Maybe we only take it for granted that it seems so significant to the one who is dying.
BLIGHT: If I were to say, "it all depends," I know you would just ask me, "depends on what?"

We always hear that dying is part of living. Think about that. Dying just comes up like, say, my needing to urinate or feeling hungry. You're walking along or just sitting somewhere, and dying shows up, I mean, it just comes along, and so you do it.

the mystery
returns, once they're in the grave
where did they go?
they're not present anymore
they must have gone someplace

why did he go
gently, no burning, no rage
what did he feel
as it came up on him
as it entered into him

it's like hearing
about a toothache. You can't
the sharp, hard, cold nail of it
deeply crippling spasms


CARMODY: In a moment bright as a bubble in the middle of a sunny Saturday, I thought about dying. It was quite strange, of course.
BLIGHT: But it's not uncommon.
[Pause.] Why don't we ever say, "I'm absolutely living to get out of here," for example, the way we say, 'I'm dying to meet her."

Each day that I stay away from my friend who is dying in hospice, I feel a little guiltier. He is probably having some good days, even some really lucid moments, but I know that as soon as I arrived there would be moans of pain and a wild blathering that would break my heart. I do not belong in this phase of his life. I wouldn't want him healthy and articulate hanging around my deathbed.

don't remind me
how unpleasant the world is
sad all around
I'm struggling to explicate
my attachment to it

I let my eye
loose to sail into the sky
it fled the world
stretched clouds along the wind
refusing to answer me

parallel lives
against the threatened losses
silence, immobility
the living and the dying
rub themselves raw


CARMODY: Death and his desperate little partners—sickness, accident, and fortuity—are coming around a lot these days, you hear more about them, see them sometimes just ducking into an alley, speeding away in a big black car.
BLIGHT: That was beautiful.

Here's a metaphor. A powerful, sudden, multi-colored, shimmering idea comes to you, a strong image filled with reverberation, and you shake your head, rub your eyes, and get to work. You write a poem, a short, intense, and perfectly crafted verse—you think modestly of Stevens, Williams, Wilbur, and Bidart. So, you type it up and submit it to Poetry, The Sewanee Review, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and The Paris Review. One by one the slips come back in the mail, each expressing the editor's sincere regret at the death of your precious poem.

a call at night
she's had another stroke
your poor mother
remembers her manners
gracious and dignified

old love letters
forgotten in a box
there is a name
but no recollection who
wrote such clichéd feelings

how far ahead
can symptoms telegraph
a deadly threat
some small cough in the night
slightly dizzy at the store


CARMODY: If I were dying, I wouldn't want to know it. Just let the music play, pour the wine, and then come and call me just before the sun comes up.
BLIGHT: Out of sight, out of mind?

I can't get near the truth here, my eyes glaze over. Dear God, why are these things kept secret? I lean in to kiss Death, but Death is painted roughly black, it is large and black, and square—a whole wall of black. Is it a picture? I can't think my way out of this!

God does no work
the universe twirls freely
we live and die
as birds fall from the wires
as light slides to darkness

a memory
she once was fat and living
an old woman
disappeared down a hole
I just vaguely remember

they'll think of me
I think now of them thinking
of me for aye
where did the hours go
all that's left is the waiting


CARMODY: What interests me is the way my remembering some unimportant event, like dinner at a restaurant with him, trumps for a moment the certain knowledge that he is right now suffering.
BLIGHT: Maybe we just live in a dream world.

I did not know anyone who died in school or college. After that, there were a few kids from school who died later in Viet Nam, but no one I knew closely. Relatives, older people, were, of course, dying all along with way. It wasn't until I had been working several years in Upstate New York that people I actually knew began dying around me, but most of these were still older, just names in their obituaries. In the last few years, though, people of my generation have begun dropping like flies.

I think of ghosts
dreams and memories of dead
can it really be over
for them, just blank pages

death distanced
from breathing, feeling quick
cold cadavers
never can experience
lament, the cleansing sobs

they come in dreams
dead faces, muttering
stings your conscience
you get up in the night
Scotch in a glass of milk


CARMODY: It's exhilarating! [Stands and breathes deeply, with his full chest.]
BLIGHT: But, not hilarious?

His daughter writes that his condition is steadily deteriorating. He cannot eat because of the cancer, so he is losing weight. Losing weight leads to a postponing of his surgery. Meanwhile, he gets weaker and weaker, and has even fallen down, more than once. At a distance of three thousand miles, I am unable to connect any of this to my best friend of fifty years. I only remember the brash young scholar from Philadelphia, deliberately unwrapping and lighting his familiar cigar, poised to crush some visiting luminary's pale arguments in seminar.

these Christmas lights
reflected in dark windows
red yellow blue
blinking stars in a mirrored
sky—one symbolic angel

endless stories
as if reading from a book
each one eager
to establish worthy
bona fides, common themes

conscience1 means two
knowing at once the same thing
in the other's
presence only one story
passes muster as truth


CARMODY: Death is so final it erases all the worry leading up to it.
BLIGHT: No mourning? No ritual laments? No wailing?
CARMODY: Lift your voices!

So, I got the call this afternoon. My dear old friend has died. I expected to be grief-stricken, but I'm not. I'm free now to remember him, to lean again on the bar at Das Gasthaus from noon to 2:00 A.M. or to arrive again at his farm in the cold and after a long January drive for dinner and to resume the political argument from four months before. His death disencumbers the future (however long that will be for me). His impending death had me stalled, stuck on a sickening fear, but his son says in an email that he had come to accept dying and was at peace with it. Put away your tears!

a single life
run through to its conclusion
has new meaning
"now against threatened losses
silence, immobility"

he taught them all
the pleasures of the kitchen
how to think past
sacred barriers, piled crap
tell the truth, feint with your right

death punctuates
that's my very last word
point sometimes, a period
ampersand, et cetera

Author's Note: 1. from conscire—be (mutually) aware.



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