Friday, November 21, 2008

The Coffin Store

Another poem struck me in The New Yorker. Expect to see a lot of them in here. I enjoy reading poems that they publish in there. Some are too out there or hard for me to understand on a few reads, but others seem to speak to me.

But isn't that what poetry is? Words that speak to certain individuals? Words placed together to construct some sort of meaning, meaning that we can figure out and argue based on word choice and placement?

Anyway, I really enjoyed this poem by C.K. Williams called "The Coffin Store." Even though there are threads of death and fear of its coming, which is easy to grasp just by reading the title alone, there's a lot more there deeper beneath the surface.

"The Coffin Store"

I was lugging my death from Kampala to Krakow.
Death, what a ridiculous load you can be,
like the world atremble on Atlas's shoulders.

In Kampala I wondered why the people, so poor,
didn't just kill me. Why don't they kill me?
In Krakow I must have fancied I'd find poets to talk to.

I still believed then I'd domesticated my death,
that he'd no longer gnaw off my fingers and ears.
We even had parties together. "Happy," said death,

and gave me my present, a coffin, my coffin,
made in Kampala, with a sliding door in its lid,
to look through, at the sky, at the birds, at Kampala.

That was his way, I soon understood, of reverting
to talon and snarl, for the door refused to come open:
no sky, no bird, no poets, no Krakow.

Catherine came to me then, came to me then,
"Open your eyes, mon amour," but death
had undone me, my knuckles were raw as an ape's,

my mind slid like a sad-ankled skate, and no matter
what Catherine was saying, was sighing, was singing,
"Mon amour, mon amour," the door shut, oh shut.

I heard trees being felled, skinned, smoothed,
hammered together as coffins. I heard death
snorting and stamping, impatient to be hauled off away.

But here again was Catherine, sighing, and singing,
and the tiny carved wooden door slid ajar, just enough--
the sky, one single bird, Catherine--just enough.

Death is mentioned much more at the beginning of the poem than at the end. And more often than not, it appears as the last word in a line which almost gives it its emphasis and finality. The finisher. Death goes from first being the subject of the sentence, even capitalized, and later it becomes a part within the sentence which is like eventually accepting its coming slowly.

Death is even a persona and speaks. Death's only word is "happy," which is an ironic piece of dialogue for it to speak. Death is anything but happy for most people. But, the way it is said is almost like the speaker wants it, like, "happy now?" Was the speaker anticipating it too much? Thinking of it too much became almost wishing it to come closer? Is Death in her thoughts, as if they have a relationship and they "party?" How is party meant here? Like destructive or a fun time?

She "domesticated" death, converting it into something more acceptable for her liking. Death won't "gnaw off her fingers;" it will party with her instead. It is "happy" and gives her a present of the coffin instead of delivering it to her or forcing it upon her. The present image is much more warming and accepting than other harsher word choices.

I was wondering about the locations since I'm not familiar. Kampala is the capital of Ugunda in Africa. Krakow is a city in Poland. So, from Kampala to Krakow, the speaker is traveling north, almost like an ascendance into heaven. From this world to another. To Americans, they are unknown places that are foreign and far away. Kampala is when she questions her death (will it come?) as she would on Earth, and in the higher place, Krakow, she wishes to enrich her mind, expand herself, and speak with poets (the growing of the soul in a different place, the other world maybe). Or, is Krakow perhaps what she loves about life, what makes her want to live while Kampala is a place that reminds her of her own mortality? (I'm making the speaker a she in this case).

The coffin is made in Kampala, the darker place, where death becomes real.

How interesting that she can see the sky, the birds from the glass lid on the coffin. The sky is the polar opposite of where the coffin belongs, and birds are the opposite of her state in the coffin. Not only are they alive, but they are free and can fly. They are of the sky, free to roam, while she is now forced into the ground to remain, not to move. The birds and the sky are colorful images of life that she will still have a view of, but will be farther from, trapped away from.

These images appear in the last stanza, even in the last lines. Except now we have one bird and the same sky. All of this is "just enough." Just enough for what? Just enough to make death acceptable and okay? Just enough to make it tolerable? Just enough to be content and ease her from the thought of death?

These two images are sandwiched between "just enough" with dashes along with Catherine, bringing emphasis into it. Or were they just enough to be happy and satisfied with the life lived by the speaker? It's a great ending, but I'm not solid on it yet.

Catherine I am taking to be a lover, or just to symbolize love itself. Love is Earth-ridden and makes you feel like death will never come. It makes life worth living. It makes you recognize the sky and the birds; it makes you want to sigh and sing, and everything your lover says sounds like song and even sighing (the worse side of love). But love makes life so worth living. When we have at least had one good love, we can die satisfied.

What is important about the italicized lines?
What is going on with Catherine?
How does the speaker feel at the end of the poem?
What is the speaker's relationship with death?

This is my first thought process on the poem. I'm still working some things out. I like to write out my thoughts. It helps me solidify what is up there floating around and making it more concrete.

So, what do you think of "The Coffin Store?" Feel free to add interpretations or ideas.

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