#1 The Last Time
I recently read ‘Lifesaving Poems’, the fantastic Bloodaxe anthology by Antony Wilson, which started life as a blog. I loved it so much that I’ve decided to start cataloguing my own ‘Lifesaving Poems’, trying to get to the bottom of why I like them so much. Obviously I couldn’t call the series ‘Lifesaving Poems’, and ‘My favourite poems’ felt twee, so I’ve borrowed Emily Dickinson’s axiom, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” These are the poems that took off the top of my head. That punched me in the stomach. That made me go ‘ohhh’. That made me groan like the lady in the Herbal Essences ad. You get the picture.
It’s also because I love poetry, and I want everyone else to love it too (in this way I feel I’m the opposite of my 14 year old self, who secretly felt convinced that converse shoes were ‘her thing’ and didn’t want anyone else to like them).
I’m starting with a poem by Marie Howe, the American poet whose three books of poetry (‘What the Living Do’, ‘The Kingdom of Ordinary Time’ and ‘The Good Thief’) I’ve read so much that I’m going to have to tape up the spines soon. (I just looked her up on Amazon and saw that there’s a new book ‘Magdalene’ coming out and now I’m so excited I need to pee.)
The Last Time, by Marie Howe
The last time we had dinner together in a restaurant
with white tablecloths, he leaned forward
and took my two hands in his hands and said,
I’m going to die soon. I want you to know that.
And I said, I think I do know.
And he said, What surprises me is that you don’t
And I said, I do. And he said, What?
And I said, Know that you’re going to die.
And he said, No, I mean know that you are.
I’m convinced that the key to The Last Time is those white tablecloths.
The book this poem comes from, What the Living Do, is in part an elegy for the poet’s brother, who died of AIDS in 1989. In the poem, the narrator and her brother have a conversation at a restaurant. The conversation itself is devastating – wise, unexpected, shocking in its concision, impossible to forget. But it’s the spare detail of the white tablecloths which tells us everything we need to know about the siblings, their relationship and the situation: this is the last time they are visiting a smart restaurant together; they enjoy going to restaurants together, so they must be close. They are trying to have a special dinner together. That fact alone is kind of heartbreaking
And the tablecloths also add a note of formality, which is telling, because death is awkward. If you are going for dinner with somebody whom you love, aware that it may be the last dinner you have together, it’s all you can do not to just start bawling in public, so formality helps. There is an invisible wall between those who are living and those who know they are going to die soon. To be living is to always be in a state of denial, because if you really realise that you’re going to die, actually admit it to yourself, you’re not going to be in any fit state to be eating a nice meal in a restaurant. The white tablecloths represent that formality and make it real.
Then John breaks through that invisible barrier by leaning forward and taking his sister’s hands. We then embark on this incredibly powerful conversation, which gains its power partly, I think, from the repetitive use of ‘and’. The narrator initially misunderstands her brother and fails to ‘get the message’: ‘I think I do know.’ The reader is carried along with her in this misunderstanding. The pattern of ‘and I said / and he said’ staggers the misunderstanding and delays the ‘revelation’ at the end, making the closing ‘punch’ so much more brutal.
I urge you to buy Marie Howe’s books if you are grieving, if you’re new to poetry (‘What the Living Do’ is particularly ‘plain-speaking’ in a way that’s brilliant if you think poetry is obscure and inaccessible), if you’re struggling with life, or just if you’re a human.