D E A D L I N E S:  Part II

LISTEN: a story is working its way up and out like shrapnel:
Long ago Eros took refuge from the blistering sun
In the cool cave of Hades himself,
And in his collapse to the cave floor unwittingly scattered
His arrows among those of the god of the underworld:
And that is why love and death are found in the same quiver.
The heart of the mind is not matter,
The mind of the matter is not heart,
The heart of the matter is imagination,
There beyond the maps of reason
In the undiscovered
Image:

Where the old archaeologist’s sunburned hand
Is tentatively probing the hot desert sand when suddenly
He is cut by the sharp edge of the long-buried tablet,
His blood seeping down into the 3500-year-old Sumerian runes
As he translates the timeworn words, feels the shock
Of recognition of his own dilemma, panics when he realizes
There is a missing shard to the tablet containing the answer
Of the old sage to Gilgamesh’s anguished question:

“How do I find the life for which I am searching?”

In the penumbra of last words
Is a fear of death,
The terror of life,
The unburdened heart,
The unrevealed mystery,
The unvanquished foes,
The unmet friends,
The unmanifested dreams,
The unsired children,
The unseen beauty,
The unsung love,
The unspoken word.
In the aurora of last words
Is the allure of death,
The awe of life,
The shadowboxing with eternity,
The bullfighting with infinity,
The remasking of the gods,
The revisioning of forms,
The recreated mysteries,
The revealed passions,
The rebirth of language.

And so we muse over the words of Montaigne,
“He who would teach men how to die
Would teach them how to live.”

And ruminate over the last letter
Of Sir Walter Raleigh while he waited
For the razor’s kiss of the widow-maker
In the Tower of London,
“It is death alone
That can make a man
Suddenly know himself.”
And mull over the request
Of the earnestly-questing reporter
In the smoke-shrouded pressroom of Citizen Kane,
“What were the last words Kane said on earth?
Maybe he told us all about himself
On his deathbed?”

According to Herodotus, the Greek historian,
The first word uttered by the human race
Was becos, the Phrygian word for “bread.”

Who will be listening for the last word?

After the anthropologist had descended from the clouds
In his roaring bird-beast-helicopter and trekked through
The green heart of the rain forest to the cliffside cave
Of the Stone Age Tasaday tribe, he hesitantly asked
Their deep-browed chief storyteller to describe the soul,
And the old seer pondered, then replied,

“The soul may be the part of you that sees the dream.”

In those heart-quickening
Moments of absolute certainty
When a fine line, a keen word,
An urgent story,
Finds an echo in you,
Have you asked yourself
Who is dreaming who—
If you are dreaming the world
Or the world is dreaming you?

Have you not heard
The bison-rumble of time
While marooned in fogbound bog?
Have you not thrown
Thought-curves
At the Lords of Death?

Have you not tasted
The salty tongue
Of the late-night visitor?

Have you not turned the skeleton key?

It is nearly dawn in Liberty, Texas,
A backwater town of clapboard shacks, tire-swings
And dark green praying mantis-like oil derricks.
I fill up the car from a gurgling six-foot glass pump
While a crackling radio plays “Crazy” by Patsy Clme,
And the grease-barnacled owner named Morry
Takes over-the-shoulder slugs of Jack Daniels.
He mumbles the lyrics while blinking back face-rusting tears,
Waits for the bluesy lost-lover anthem to shiver to a close,
Then suddenly confesses to me in a gravelly, stutter-stepping voice,
“If I knew I was going to kick the bucket tomorrow I reckon
I’d change everything: my job, my old lady, my life.”
The cigarette butt flares as it burns down to his fingers.
His eyes glaze over like a hunting dog frozen in point,
A neighbor whose house is burning down now.

At dusk in the tangled rush-hour traffic of Manhattan,
A cab driver harrumphs to a Life magazine reporter
Who is interviewing him about the meaning of life,
“We’re here to die, just to live and die.
I do some fishing, take my girl out, pay taxes,
Then get ready to drop dead.”

In Stockholm a century earlier, chemist and inventor
Alfred Nobel one morning at breakfast was startled
To read his own obituary, and discovered to his horror
That he had been eulogized not for his creations,
His philanthropy or compassion, but for the destruction
He had wrought in his life, only for his invention
Of dynamite, only as a merchant of death.

What will it take for us to see with the piercing eye
Of the weaver behind the red-threaded loom
In the royal tapestry factory?
To gaze in the sacred manner
Of the Indian medicine men over
The holy land of the ancestors?
To trust the animal eye, focus the primal vision?
To give birth to the god within
Through our immaculate perception?

To find the woodcutter’s path in the dark forest?
To live as if our life depended on it?
To feel beneath the torpor?
To break the deadbolt?
To realize that death is more universal than life
Only because not everybody lives?

To stand with Rilke before
The luminous statue of Apollo,
The elegiac ruins at Duino,
The pulsating oranges of Cézanne,
The swaggering panther of the Paris zoo,
Until we see with heart-thrumming clarity that

“You must change your life.”

Last words are the last act of the mystery play,
Lines that can be read as the universal drama
Of self-revelation, a diorama of a human being’s final moments
Replete with the megaphors, the monumental phrases,
The verbal trompe l’oeils, the brilliant word illusions,
The three-dimensional renderings of the hermetic questions,
(The ones we were dying to ask),
The crack-in-the-floorboard answers
(The ones we were dying to hear),
The sudden character motivations
That illuminate our own conflicts
And stun us with the blood memory,
The fevered flow of the blood line,

Underscore the philosopher who confessed that most people—
Including himself—spend much of their lives
Talking around what they really want to say:

A vivid illustration of how a few intimate words
May convey as much as a lifetime of headlines,
A few italicized words mean more than a career of fine print.

These dramatic third act realizations
Push us to the edge of our seat
With the white-knuckled hope for catharsis
From memorable story lines that might
Wrestle immortality from anonymity,
Fight against the common grave,
Provoke us into rethinking our lives
With their whiplashing last lines, punchlines,
And deadlines:

Like the man of silence, exile and cunning, James Joyce,
Who forged a new consciousness in literature
In the smithy of his melancholic Celtic soul,
Then died in a firestorm of doubt,
Asking even his devoted wife Nora,
“Does nobody understand?”

And the dialectical philosopher George Hegel,
Whose final synthesis was finally understandable,
“Only one man ever understood me...
And he didn’t understand me.”
And the redoubtable Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius,
“By understanding many things
I have accomplished nothing.”
And the condemned Irish patriot Roger Casement in a last letter,
“It is a cruel thing to die with all men misunderstanding.”
And the poet-dramatist Heinrich Schiller
Who sought to distill beauty from his own death,
“Many things are growing plain and clear to my understanding.”

And the wanderlusting Marco Polo,
Who regretted in his last hours,
“I did not write half of what I saw.”
And the star-struck astronomer Pierre Simon LaPlace,
“What we know is not much;
What we do not know is immense.”
And the relative-minded Albert Einstein,
“And even so I’ve not quite convinced myself
That it is all true.”
And the inscrutable Leonardo da Vinci,
“I have offended God and man because my work
Wasn’t good enough... tell me ever...
If things were done.”
And the saturnine Michelangelo,
“Weary, weary... My soul I resign to God,
My body to the earth, my worldly goods to my next of kin.”
And the imponderable Plotinus,
“I am making my last effort to return that which is divine in me
To that which is divine in the universe.”
And the mystical Thomas Merton,
“Soon I will disappear from view....”

And the mathematician Evariste Galois,
Having fatally miscalculated in a duel to the death,
“Don’t cry. I need all my courage to die at twenty.”
And the Greek philosopher Phocion
After a kangaroo court sentencing,
“All the great men of Athens have met the same end.”
And the rapier-witted French writer Roch Chamfort,
Preferring suicide to execution by the tribunal,
“Ah, my friend, I am about to leave this world
Where the heart must either be broken or of brass.”
And the eagle-proud Geronimo
To his stone-souled U.S. Army captors,
“I want to go back to my old home before I die.”

And the gold-nosed medieval astronomer Tycho Brahe,
Turning his telescope back on his own life,
“Let me not seem to have died in vain.”
And the peripatetic warrior-poet T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia),
“There is something broken in the works,
The will, I think.”
And the cavalry-haunted Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé,
Begging his son not to sign any more treaties with white men,
“... never sell the bones of your father and mother.”

Or the missionary-cursed Hawaiian King Kalakaua,
“I tried to restore our gods, our way of life...”
Or the vision-gouged Vincent van Gogh,
“I shall never be rid of this depression.”
Or the raven-haunted Edgar Allen Poe,
“Lord, help my poor soul.”

Or the lugubrious Alfred Hitchcock,
“I am a sea of alone.”
Or the glorious John Keats,
“Don’t breathe on me—it comes like ice.”
Or the humorless Demonax,
“Draw the curtains—the farce is over.”
Or the contumelious Auguste Comte,
“What an irreparable loss.”
Or the pious Joseph Addison,
“See in what peace a Christian can die.”
Or the portentous George Jackson,
“The dragon has come.”
Or the gangrenous Rabelais,
“I go to seek the great perhaps.”
Or the adventurous Thomas Hobbes,
“I am about to take my last voyage,
A great leap in the dark.”

Or the puckish Alan Watts,
Remarking with irreducible rascality,
“Life is like a bubble—poof
And it’s gone.”
Or the mischievous Andre Gide,
Powdered and rehearsed for immortality,
“I’m afraid my sentences
Are becoming grammatically incorrect...
Before you quote me make sure I’m conscious.”

Or the audacious Galileo,
“Eppur si muove,”
“Still it moves.”

Between dream and waking
Life and death
Companionship and solitude
Is the third thing
The imagining
That last words point
Toward first:

For what’s a metaphor
But to touch the black cat
In the dark room that isn’t there?
To assemble the ship of death
In the bottle of life
That has no sides?

To reconcile ourselves
With the stones?
To bend our minds
To keep knowledge from blinding us?
To squeeze the precise words in
In time in the space allotted to us
As the deadline approaches
As fast as groundrush
To a tumbling
Paratrooper?

Long after the unexpected death,
In the long-unopened book with the sepia cover photo
Of Ankor Wat, the enchanted Cambodian temple rediscovered
Beneath the nightmare of history’s stone-strangling vines,
He found the unread letter from his father,
Unsteady words in dark red ink that asked,

“Did my love of words influence you?”
And emotion burst like a blood vessel:
He had the vain illusion he had been all alone.

The son who wears his father’s soul
Passes on the gathered wisdom and can sit
In the circle of drummers with the village elders.

The brute truth
Lingers there where
The dream prowls

There where wonder
Swirls in
The wound

There in the dark time
When the eye begins to hear
And the ear begins to see
Where the lungs feel
And the heart breathes
There while soul is shaped

The hobbled
Conquistador waits alone
By the still windmills

Listen:
The mesmerizing cry from the minaret
Propping up the ruins of the heart:
“No one knows our name
Until the last
Breath.”

 

Part II from Deadlines: A Rhapsody on a Theme of a Famous and Infamous Last Words, by Phil Cousineau, Sisyphus Press, 1991. For more information contact: Sisyphus Press P.O. Box 330098, San Francisco, CA 94133.

Phil Cousineau is a writer, storyteller, teacher, editor, documentary filmmaker, travel leader, and photographer. His life-long fascination with the art, literature, and history of culture has taken him on journeys around the world. He lectures frequently on a wide range of topics from creativity, mythology, and film—to soul, writing, and travel. His books include Once and Future Myths, Riddle Me This, The Art of Pilgrimage, The Soul Aflame, Soul Moments: Marvelous Stories of Synchronicity, and Deadlines: A Rhapsody on a Theme of Famous Last Words. He also edited Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey. His screenwriting credits in documentary films, which have won more than twenty-five international awards, include: Ecological Design: Inventing the Future, The Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey, The Peyote Road, The Red Road to Sobriety, Your Humble Serpent: The Life of Reuben Snake, Wiping the Tears of Seven Generations, Eritrea: March to Freedom, The Presence of the Goddess, The Hero's Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell, and the 1991 Academy Award-nominated Forever Activists: Stories from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Contact Phil through his website: www.philcousineau.net
Woodcut illustration by Robin Eschner.
Photo by Jo Beaton.

Phil has previously appeared in the
April 2002 issue of TheScreamOnline.

To purchase books by Phil Cousineau, click on titles:

Once and Future Myths
Riddle Me This
The Art of Pilgrimage
The Soul Aflame
Soul Moments: Marvelous Stories of Synchronicity
Deadlines: A Rhapsody on a Theme of Famous Last Words
The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell

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