Monday, June 1, 2009


To live is to be obsessed with death.

I'm working on a new poem, the first in at least a couple of months, and it's about death. Every poem I write is about death. Sometimes it's the death of a relationship, or a feeling, but a lot of the time it's just plain death.

It's not that I'm afraid of death. I mean, I don't want to die, but severe brain damage, paralysis, dismemberment, senility and various other undesirable states are way more horrifying. Death, self-death, seems relatively easy. It just interests me conceptually, this death thing happening at every possible scale in time and space, not just among humans and squirrels.

When I was a kid, and my parents relayed the news of a death in the family to me, not anyone very immediate but possibly a grandparent, I remember feeling kind of excited. I didn't make this known, of course, but I didn't cry either. I think my parents interpreted this as my not understanding. And I guess that's true in some sense. But I can still see the logic in it, appropriate or not--I didn't feel close to said person, or that it would affect me greatly. What was mildly thrilling was suddenly feeling like I was participating in life on a higher level than before. I'd seen funerals and deaths in movies but had had no direct access to that experience. So it was like this combination of novelty, and feeling special (since not everyone gets to go to a funeral every day (ugh)), but also communing with those who had also passed through this rite. Similar to flying on a plane for the first time, or my first kiss.

Does anyone know if there is a word for this, in German or something? It's not schadenfreude, since that is taking pleasure in someone else's misfortune, when I was more taking pleasure in my own.


The new issue of Open Letters is humungoid, and fictional. Ha ha. It's the fiction issue. Also, it did go down for a while today due to bandwidth issues. Several of my friends are contributors, including Chris Marstall (photo), Christen Enos (review) and Sage Marsters (short story). Also, John, but duh.


I hate to say it, but To The Wedding is not blowing my top. Probably it's too life-affirming.


  1. It wasn't until I started reading poems aloud that I realized they're all about death, murder, and/or suicide. Now I feel really self-conscious. I also feel like I can't help myself, and maybe it's just a poetic disposition, to be death-obsessed and continue living through sheer will.

    This isn't the word you're looking for, but perhaps I could interest you in weltschmerz:

    Or saudade:

  2. "Saudade" is a fantastic word and a pervasive aspect of my waking and dreaming lives. I was just talking to John last night about the deep nostalgia I feel for most of my past, though less so as the past gets more recent.

    I'm glad you found my new blog, Leigh!

  3. Weltschmerz and saudade are both valuable concepts to have on the toolbelt, and are clearly related to the subject at hand -- but it seems to me that they don’t quite get at the thrill you’re describing. Weltschmerz, as Wikipedia tells us, “denotes the kind of feeling experienced by someone who understands that physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind” . . . but it seems to me that in this case the thrill comes from the mind brushing against a physical reality (death) for which consciousness seems insufficient. Roughly the same deal with saudade, with additional piquancy added by memory and loss – which in turn doesn’t seem to jibe with the fresh and unmediated experience you’re describing.

    I’ll put a few more players on the field: the sublime, for one. Or, at the risk of sounding like a broken record –- no, wait, that was me yammering on a different blog -– how about ostranenie? Again, not quite right –- it’s more like ostranenie describes a method or strategy for evoking the experience you’re describing –- but it’s in the ballpark, I think.

    Something else worth kicking around is the Japanese word yûgen, which describes something which abruptly engages sensation and emotion in an intense and ambiguous way, yet does not “have to do with some other world beyond this one, but rather with the depth of the world we live in, as experienced through cultivated imagination.” Again, as with ostranenie, this is an instance of a mature consciousness momentarily regaining the capacity for a childlike freshness of perception (and doing so through artifice, often); you seem to be after a word that names a childlike (or adolescent) freshness of experience of a particular sort. I ain’t got that. But anyway.

  4. Martin, I might have known you could throw a few good words/concepts into the mix. Those are both new to me, though ostranenie seems to have much overlap w/ the German unheimlich. Yugen is nice too. Those Japanese and their slippery concepts!

    I think the one element all these words lack, though, is a note of taboo or subversity, of a pleasure that is not just rare, but inspired by something that is not supposed to inspire pleasure. I may just have to coin a term.

    I felt a hint of this recently when I decided I had celiac disease, and subsequently started bawling, and later got blood work done to be tested for it, and then found out I didn't have it. I found I was mildly disappointed. I'm not sure if I wanted the diagnosis to be positive just so I'd have an answer as to why my tummy hurt, or if part of me just kind of wanted to have a disease.