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A language for dying


River Styx ferryman taking people to the afterlife















for Fay Zwicky

I never learned to fear Charon, just as I never
Learned Latin. The book (from England) came too late
So I was behind in class. I never caught up.

Coins for the ferryman? Any price seemed high
While blood flowed so easily. To be young
Was always to be taken for granted.

There were older brothers Over There, even dads,
That was just one of those things.
There was a price, no doubt of that.

But we were exempt. Money was nothing
As mortality was nothing to us.
It was a dead language. We were very young.

Now I am too old and Charon is waiting
I finger the coins but do not know the words,
All I remember might as well be Latin.

Is there a language for dying? Is there
Any language at all? Charon is waiting
But I still hear the ripple of water. Or is it just my pulse?



We are used to light. It is the beacon
Guiding us and we ignore it at our risk
Not that we ever dream of abandoning it.

Light has become more than a mere friend,
It is almost part of the family
Though it has not the ability to betray us.

Dark remains perpetually strange.
Why is that? It is as if fear
Were part of our essential makeup.

Yet we cannot live forever in light;
There is that need of darkness somewhere;
Sleep is encouraged by what it has to offer.

We are plagued by certainty as much as by uncertainty.
Light is the norm the spectrum by which we live.
But darkness is always there, like something in wait.

We dream of an end, and we really know
That dark will claim us, that light is only temporary.
We may be accustomed to light, but only fools take that for granted.



Underneath everything we touch is the smell
Of something too obvious to express
And yet we say there is nothing, nothing at all.

We have learned to live with a multitude of smells,
They simply do not bother us, they are everyday
And part of the natural world we have inherited.

There is nothing more obvious than the smell of living,
It is like movement, and, like movement, it is everywhere.
Like sweat it is ourselves, only the language is different.

The smell of dying is also everywhere.
Why do we hide it with cosmetics?
We are appalled. Why are we appalled?

The earth is moving. Such a short while we are here.
Every smell is somehow precious.
We cannot afford to be choosy. There is nothing to deny.

Thomas Shapcott headshotThomas Shapcott is a writer, orginially from Queensland. He was director of the Literature Board of the Australia Council 1983–1990, and executive director of the National Book Council 1991–1997. More recently he was professor of creative writing at the University of Adelaide. He has written poetry, novels, dramas, reviews and short stories. 

River Styx image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Thomas Shapcott, poetry, Charon, the ferryman



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Existing comments

From "Those who have seen visions": "On an obscure wall with quick strokes on wet plaster/Piero della Francesca painted Christ/lifting his heavy torso, released at last/into vision. The painter was concentrating his cluster/of geometric tokens to clamp like a bite/against the neck of absence. We flinch alright." Thomas Shapcott, thanks for this and the above.

Pam | 04 November 2013  

Courageous poems Tom. Written with great clarity and acute sensitivity. You continue to create, and as always you create with both great skill and meaning. Your work speaks to me. Thank you

Arnold Zable | 05 November 2013  

Thank you, a beautiful poem; Karl Ove Knausgaard's 'A Death in the Family' speaks of these issues, especially for those of us who have lost a parent. Highly recommend the novel.

chris g | 05 November 2013  

What is it about your poetry? Is it just that I'm old? Thank you Thomas.

Mahdi | 05 November 2013  

Good to see Tom Shapcott's poetry. He writes so well here about dying - powerfully and without self-pity.

Barry Breen | 05 November 2013  

Good to see some poems by Tom Shapcott - I have found most of his books are out of print, as are those of many fine Australian writers. Like him, I come from Queensland and never managed to learn Latin - and like him wonder what the language of dying might be. Latin would have the right ring about it, but anything dignified but plain would help.

Rodney Wetherell | 05 November 2013  

Beautiful poem. Thank you.

Jill | 05 November 2013  

Dear Tom thank you for the quiet talk we had at the ASA dinner. The simple directness of what you said impressed me greatly and seemed to lead into these striking poems.

Helen Garner | 11 November 2013  

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