Two Poems & Essays

Hushed Casket

Bless you for loving
most of all the words
you couldn't understand,

the pillowed voices under
your bed, aspirations warm
as breath through satin,
securing dark to dawn.

Bless you for needing
least of all to overhear some
meaning but wanting only

the sound of the sleep sound,
the love of the homebound,
so near and faraway, so over
and under and above.

For fifty years I believed she had died on a Sunday, I suppose because I thought that was the right day for it, empty and sad as Sundays are, but while fiddling with my perpetual calendar paperweight, I discovered she had died on a Tuesday. A Tuesday? I didn't want it to be. I called the county courthouse to check their records. She had died on Tuesday, April 29, 1952. At six o'clock in the evening. So it must have been Wednesday morning when I went with Aunt Monona to buy the dress my mother would wear forever. It was a lightweight navy blue dress with tiny white polka dots all over it, a kind of silkscreen of faraway stars.

The funeral was on Thursday, May 2nd, the day after May Day, the day when a girl with a crush on you might leave at your door a handmade paper basket of daffodils and lilacs and apple blossoms and dandelions and violets, whatever the backyards of our little town could afford. Is there a more life-affirming feeling than that of being young and mysteriously in love in springtime? Or a better word for this compelling union of life and love than the word crush, a word the heartless dictionary dismisses as “a temporary infatuation,” as if life is not temporary, love not infatuated?

Because there was no funeral home in our town her casket was brought to our living room for two days so family and friends could easily pay their respects. Since my bedroom was upstairs over the living room, when I got into bed I lay only several feet directly above my mother in her casket. Although this poem draws on the truth that my mother's body was, and, you might say, in some psychological way, still is, under my bed, the tone of the poem is as well informed by warm memories of better nights lying in bed listening to her and my dad talking in bed, the muffled sound of their voices, his cigarette cough, their blended laughter, the words audible but unintelligible, pulsing through their ceiling, my floor, their pillow talk a release from the cares of the day, helping them, and me, go to sleep.

In earlier drafts of this poem, titled “Voices Under My Room,” I inserted some made-up details to give some precise content to their conversations, but these details soon felt too much like facile poetic devices for my pretending to have overheard some life-changing parental advice. The truth is I could never hear exactly what they were saying. So, not wanting to lie, and preferring not to be autobiographical, I changed “My” to “Your,” thus to address the reader and to shift the focus toward more general intimations of sleep and death. Of course, as usual, I still felt like I was talking to myself, but now I was at least making some attempt to reach others, not with my contrived childhood tidbits, but through some common sound of meaning, some murmuring Morphean diction of sleep, some drowsy consciousness of losing consciousness, something in sound like the nebulous but absolute visual power of a dream that fades just as, perhaps because, we try to recall it. Trying to capture this peculiar feeling of clarity dissolving, I took out every idiosyncratic detail I thought might wake the reader up too much.

This effort at a quieting effect, inherent in the “Bless you” that starts each half of the poem, was to create a soporific voice, perhaps your mother's voice, the serious but soothing sound of lullabies for overtired toddlers. “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” an old favorite in my family, is this kind of sleep song, its refrain relaxing despite the grave news that the old gray goose has died in the mill pond and has been turned into a feather bed. (Perhaps into your feather bed!) Another favorite, somewhat more comforting in lyrics and melody, is “Hush, Little Baby.” Its “don't say a word” litany of admonitions against material things can soon lull even the bedside reader into nodding-off humming, leaving her herself too sleepy to remember exactly why the best things in life are free, how when mockingbirds, diamond rings, looking glasses, goats and carts, and all else fails, love prevails, leading her to conclude: “Hush, little baby, don't you cry, your daddy loves you and so do I.”

The blessing in my poem, like that implicit in lullabies, is a thank-you to the child for “loving” what “you couldn't understand,” for not tediously questioning, for not “needing overhear some / meaning” by looking for implications, but for simply accepting the mysteries of language and sleep and day and night, for letting go, for keeping faith with “the sound of the sleep sound” that leads to sleeping soundly.

The comfort in the poem is in the voiced “aspirations,” the common dreams and schemes of parents, what my mother with a sigh called Saturday night talk. As I remember it, such talk was full of hope, as “warm / as breath through satin” / securing dark to dawn,” leaving the listener to believe that, as my father often said, better days were coming. Despite going hungry in the Thirties and going to war in the Forties, they were sustained by some abiding hope for the future. Like Scarlett O'Hara's curtain-closing remarks in Gone with the Wind, their generation's favorite film, tomorrow was another—and by sheer force of will could be a better—day.

But night remains, as dark as the grave, for the lively “pillowed voices” are also the voices silenced on pillows in caskets, and in a disquieting way, the “satin” lining of the casket sounds like Satan. But like the old gray goose, the poem survives itself in its spirit of a feather-bed “love of the homebound.” Although the fact of death is always both “near and faraway,” both imminent and denied, and always “so over / and under and above” all we do, we can choose not to dwell on it. So from the opening line, “Bless you for loving,” to the final rhyme of “love” and “above,” I mean for our belief in love to triumph over our fear of death. In this triumph, the voice of the poem may be not only that of your own mother but that of Mother Earth, the eternal bed under our temporary beds, where we will all forever one day rest in peace.

In structure, the poem is a variation on the traditional sonnet form, with the usual fourteen lines, but split into two seven-line blessings, each with its subset of three and four lines, three to imply a question, four to answer it. As I've said, the first blessing is for loving the words for their sounds alone, the second for not requiring a specific meaning (not “needing . . . to overhear”). In choosing a sound sleep over fretful tossing and turning, in accepting a soothing transport into sleep, the poem may be a kind of lullaby for frazzled adults who need to embrace a good night's sleep as a daily restorative blessing in their lives.

After my mother's funeral, I was never able to see our living room the same again. What would never be there again was always there. In my dreams she would be there, reading, playing the piano, decorating the Christmas tree, mending my shirt, combing my hair, her hand cupping my bony shoulder, holding me still. Even in broad daylight, after school, after delivering papers, when I came into the living room I might see her sitting there, waiting for me. Living room, what an odd word, I came to think.

By the time I finished overworking this poem, torturing it until it said less and less, the title was wrong again, too flat, too prosaic, ill-suited to what I was trying to get at, which was something about the faint breath of a difference between day and night, waking and sleeping, life and death, sound and silence, and about the importance of love and faith in holding these opposites together. While still fussing with titles, I happened on an essay on Romantic poets, which included a reference to Keats's “Sonnet to Sleep,” a poem that was new to me. As luck and larceny would have it, I found in it the two words I stole for my title. I figured Keats wouldn't mind, seeing as he himself had brazenly swiped my main idea from me some two hundred years before.

Keats ends his sonnet with this quatrain: “Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords / Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole; / Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards, / And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.”

Hush, little baby, don't say a word.

My mother was thirty-seven when she died.

Keats was twenty-five.

I was ten.



I loved the words, the names,
when I was a boy when
his blue eye turned me
to the muscular heft of arms,
Winchester and Remington,

the smell of gun oil and gun powder,
the thumbed-smooth feel of wood and steel,
the slick liquid clatter of lever actions,
the lovely locking in of shells in chambers,
the quick kicking out of burning brass,

then the startling blast at dawn,
the buckling and staggering,
the thrashing in the snow,
the shredded roses in the snow,
the eye, its dark lashes, flecked with snow.

Previously in Wisconsin People & Ideas, Summer 2012

What boy who came to consciousness on the heels of World War II didn't know about guns and ammunition?   And Hitler and Hirohito and the atomic bomb and individual deaths and mass murder.   My bachelor uncle, who used to take me hunting with him when I was a boy,  was drafted at age thirty-seven.  He would let me hold his Winchester 94, every man's favorite deer rifle, and let me work its lever action, and would always say,  “Remember, son, this is a rifle.  Don't call this a gun. This is a rifle.”

He was no doubt recalling his drill instructor's phallic distinction between “your gun for fun and your rifle for killing,” an old line I myself didn't hear until I was in ROTC some ten years later, a line that shows what trouble rhyme itself can lead to quite apart from military discomforts of long and short arm inspections.

The movie Winchester 73, in which Jimmy Stewart wins the coveted rifle in a shooting contest by shooting a hole through a coin that already has a hole in it, shooting, you see, a hole through a hole, was, since I was such a sucker for accuracy, one of my favorite Westerns.  The first rifle I bought, when I was twenty, was a battered old Winchester 94 with a heavy octagon barrel.  It had a lovely weight and a well-worn feel to it.  I could hit a beer can in the air with it.  Thirty years later I gave it to my son on his wedding day, which, now that I look back at it, seems an odd thing to have done.  Not the giving of the rifle, but the occasion for the giving.

On Saturdays in September my dad would take me with him to trap shooting contests, where men with their Remington shotguns would line up in five-man teams and man after man yell “pull” and blast away at clay pigeons.  The smell of gunpowder in the air was delicious to me, an absolute transport, and to this day, a whiff of it from an empty shell casing sends me straight back to my boyhood shooting days.

I started writing "Rifling" on the inside of a cartridge box with a stubby pencil while I was in my deer stand early one opening morning. The poem's more about the power of words than about the power of rifles, and mainly it's about the process of rifling through the sound and sense of words to see how they create meaning in our lives. It's also about the look of things, including the "blue eye" of fathers and uncles and brothers, perhaps allusive of the lost hero in Cummings's "Buffalo Bill's Defunct," which asks "how do you like your blueyed boy / Mister Death?" And perhaps tinged with the ice-blue of the sinister eye of the cinema Nazi, or perhaps, depending on how you feel about guns, with the soft-blue of the compassionate eye of someone who loves you. At the end, of course, the "blue eye" of the hunter is brought into sharp contrast with the "dark lashes" of the brown-eyed deer.

This poem was not intended to be an anti-hunting poem (though I suppose it could be read as such).  One might as well write an anti-death poem, and I'm no longer so persuaded by that John Donne stuff about “Death, be not proud ….  Death, thou shalt die.”  My poem's message, if it has one, is more dire than that.  I'm afraid it's about how we kill the things we love, perhaps because we love them, and about how the incantatory power of words may lead us into action, and, probably, as poets have said forever, about how death is sacred because without it there would be no love or beauty. 

And about how all of us are prey, which may be why we pray, and about how the pristine woods are refuge and sanctuary, and about how the innocent deer is a kind of primordial savior, about the communion of body and blood, about the ancient lifesaving feast that inspires so many religions. 

And having just now noted the common theme of death and regeneration in nature, it occurs to me that this poem was probably influenced not only by my father and uncle and my own experiences as a hunter but also by my early reading of James Fenimore Cooper and Ernest Hemingway.  Their young-man-coming-of-age stories, Cooper's tales of the American frontier and Hemingway's accounts of big game hunting in Africa, spoke to the heart of whatever heart I thought was the heart of me when I was young.  There's no way I could have taken so much of that stuff in without having some of it leak out.

It's strange and sometimes unsettling to see how what we read can so easily become a part of what we write, especially when we don't even realize it while we're writing.  So, I suppose, in that quirky subliminal way of literary influence, you could say that, whether I knew it or not, or like it or not,  “Rifling” may be my nano-version of The Deerslayer and Green Hills of Africa.  Very nano, I would hasten to add.  

In a still more personal way, quite outside the poem and yet in my mind intimately connected to it, the poem seems to me about my son, who has now grown up to become a throwback hunting purist who takes nothing but his rifle and his knife and his naked heart with him into the predawn darkness.  For the past few seasons, just as we switch off the light to go to sleep the night before opening day, he has made a point of asking me if I'm taking a pen and paper into the woods with me.  But I never answer him, of course, because I know he already knows I am.  

—Dion Kempthorne, Richland Center, WI