Saturday, March 11, 2017

Death, Be Not Proud-With The 17th Century Poet John Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud” In Mind

Death, Be Not Proud-With The 17th Century Poet John Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud” In Mind  

Holy Sonnets: Death, be not proud

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Death, be not proud, though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; 
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow 
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. 
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, 
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, 
And soonest our best men with thee do go, 
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery. 
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, 
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, 
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well 
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then? 
One short sleep past, we wake eternally 
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. 

By Seth Garth

[Usually music critic Seth Garth confines himself to reviews of CDs and other related subjects like the history behind various musical genre but today he has asked for space to speak about poetry or rather the effect that a poem, 17th century poet John Donne’s Death, Be Not Proud, has had on his old schoolboy friend Luther Larsen who is going through some tough times these days. He begs your indulgence. Ben Goldman]   

My schoolboy friend from old Riverdale High Luther Larsen is dying. I cannot put the matter anymore gently. Luther Larsen is dying. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but his ticket has been punched.  He is a “dead man walking” to use a term from death penalty cases as he himself put it to me the other night on the cellphone when he called me from Boston where he is stating for a few days and where he has of late been a patient at Massachusetts General Hospital. Early last year after complaining for several months of serious bladder problems (let’s just leave it at seriously increased urgency and frequency problems and the reader can figure it out from there on the ravages of a seventy-five year old man) and seeking various treatments that did not relieve his condition one biopsy taken to see what the real problem was he was informed by the doctor that he had bladder cancer.  

After the initial shock, no, denial had worn off (he did not tell me about his condition for several months after the diagnosis) Luther began what are called BCG treatments, not the dreaded chemotherapy he was at pains to tell me and others whenever anybody made that mistake about the nature of the procedure.  I will not go into the graphic aspects of the procedure but they included a series of treatments projected to be over a two plus year duration in order to control the spread of cancerous cells by throwing a toxic cocktail into his body to “harden” up the walls of the bladder. His urologist touted the procedure as a very successful way to control the disease. Luther was all in even though he hated the periodic procedure days like the plague for it left him depleted and very tired although the actual procedure time was fairly short the life-cycle of the chemicals was not.

Luther went through the first couple of series with flying colors after he was “scoped,” after the doctor did another procedure to see what his bladder looked like and after he got the results of a urine sample back. Then after the last series and “scope” the other shoe dropped. The urologist informed him that his bladder was inflamed again, the cancerous cells were making a comeback. The problem, the ‘dead man walking” problem, remember that is Luther’s term not mine, is that due to other medical problems including prostate issues he was not a candidate for a bladder replacement, the next step if the BCG procedure was unsuccessful  in holding back the cancerous cells. Meaning, according to the doctor, that while they would continue the periodic BCGs that realistically he had only a couple of years before he would be overcome by the cancer. Would be a “dead man dead” as Luther put it in one of his more sardonic moments.                      

Luther’s initial reaction to the news from the doctor once he returned from Boston to the apartment that he was renting in a small fishing village in Maine was denial and fear, not uncommon among people who have gotten this kind of terminal notice. (The “why” of the apartment in a small Maine fishing village for a man who has all his life feared to be more than a mile from city street lights will be dealt with in a minute.). He became reclusive, a condition made worse by the isolation and emptiness of that small Maine fishing village in winter until that other night when he told me his fate (again it had been a month after the doctor’s bad news before he made that call to me to tell me about his condition).   

But enough of the sad medical prognostication because if you have been playing attention the topic is about John Donne’s poem Death, Be Not Proud which is really what Luther wanted to talk about for the hour and one half that we were on the phone (he, self-admittedly, not much of a phone person so you can get the tenor of his concerns). Luther had ever since we met in English class freshman year at old Riverdale High been mad for poetry, would read poems out loud even when we were hanging around pizza parlor corners on windswept and girl-less Friday nights much to our annoyance and to our prospects for “picking up” stray girls who were guy-less and knew that the pizza parlor was the “spot” to meet and see what happened. In those days I was trying to get all the guys interested in the folk minute that was brewing in the land and which I had heard girls, the kind of girls I, we, would be interested in were getting into so I was not really paying attention to what Luther was spouting forth as far as poetry went. The one poem I was crazy about mad man Allen Ginsberg’s Howl Luther, to use an expression that made the pizza parlor rounds, could have given a rat’s ass about.                   

The exception to my disinterest in Luther’s foolish poems was John Donne’s Death, Be Not Proud which Luther lived by, still does which will come again in a minute as well and then mainly on religious grounds. See Luther was brought up a Protestant, a Lutheran and hence his name, who were not as hung about getting to heaven as I as a Roman Catholic devotee was then. Luther always said, now remember he was only maybe fifteen or sixteen at the time and not any more worried about the grim reaper than I was, that he would not worry about dying, would face it as bravely as he could when his time came. Saw death not as an enemy but as just the “big sleep” (my term from that last paragraph of Raymond Chandler’s crime novel The Big Sleep), no better or worse. He had picked up that idea from Donne’s poem and anytime we talked of the subject that would always come up.  I then, and now too, feared death, feared not being, feared losing the battle, feared winding up outside the gates of Eden. The other night Luther quoted for the first time in a long time that poem and said that he was still resolved as he had been as a schoolboy when the matter was not quite so pressing to face his impending death as bravely as he could. He made short work of the few feeble arguments I made to carry on until the bitter end.            

Then, as his voice became noticeably less audible over that damn phone, Luther kind of whispered what did bother him, was agitating him in the light of his recent news. He had begun to become afraid that at the end he would die alone, alone with nobody to see him through at the end. Now of course I and a bunch of other guys will be there when that hopefully faraway day comes but you have to know Riverdale schoolboy “speak” to know what Luther really meant. He meant that there would be no female companion to see him off. I knew exactly what he meant because poetry –addled or music-addled we were, are, skirt-addled. And that brings us back to that point about why he was tucked away in some godforsaken small isolated Maine fishing village in winter. A couple of years ago his long-time companion, Stephanie, Stephanie Murphy, told Luther she had found another man, had found somebody more in tune with her musical and artistic interests than he and that she was leaving him and the home they had shared for the previous ten years (Luther had been twice divorced, not nice divorces before meeting Stephanie). Once she left, once she left even knowing that he had serious health issues, Luther could not face staying in their place and took off for Maine which in sunnier times had been a place of refuge for both of them. And there he has stayed although recently he has made noises about going back to his roots, going back to Riverdale to face the end in a place that he knew would provide some mental relief. 

As we finished that long conversation Luther signed off by reaffirming that he was not afraid to die, and was hopeful that maybe he could find someone (remember read some woman) who would be there for him at the end.  I give a rat’s ass about that and I told him I hope that he does find somebody. Enough said.              

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