I've been thinking about all the writers and poets I've outlived. The ones who didn't make it into their late 30s, or even their early. Christopher Marlowe, Anne Brontë, Percy Shelley all died at 29. Joseph Plunkett was 28. Keats died eight months shy of turning 26. There are others. The ones who left glory behind them having lived barely a third of their due time. Enough and not nearly enough.
Keats comes up in Mary Oliver's quartet "The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac," about her experience of cancer. Being 80, what she calls "the fortunate platform of many years," Oliver knows about the brevity of life. In the first of the poem's four parts, she names cancer the hunter who entered the forest of her body without a sound. In the third, she urges the reader who hasn't begun to live to think of Keats, who thought he had a lifetime. The poem moves from the shadow of death to the brighter shadow of life. In the end, it's the tiniest things that speak loudest, hold hardest. It's not the silent hunter but the fragile blue flowers that catch the breath and set the heart beating.
Here are the second and fourth parts, which I find the most moving. Listen to Mary Oliver read the whole poem here.
The question is,
what will it be like
after the last day?
Will I float
into the sky
or will I fray
within the earth or a river—
How desperate I would be
if I couldn't remember
the sun rising, if I couldn't
remember trees, rivers; if I couldn't
even remember, beloved,
your beloved name.
Late yesterday afternoon, in the heat,
all the fragile blue flowers in bloom
in the shrubs in the yard next door had
tumbled from the shrubs and lay
wrinkled and faded in the grass. But
this morning the shrubs were full of
the blue flowers again. There wasn't
a single one on the grass. How, I
wondered, did they roll or crawl back
to the shrubs and then back up to
the branches, that fiercely wanting,
as we all do, just a little more of