Ye know not what hour …

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New Year’s Eve. I attended a party on Facebook. We drank, danced to 80s pop classics, met old friends and were introduced to new people. It was genuinely fun and an alternative to getting dressed and going out Thank you for the invite, Ian Mowll, and to Doris Eagle Feather Duster for our dance around the handbags.

I also looked at pictures of a friend’s new grandson, born a few days ago. Then I had a text from another friend to say her mother-in-law had died this morning. I’ve walked the dog, talked to friends, had a couple of whiskys, some cheese and pickled onions and am now getting ready for an early night and 2013. In the words of T.S.Eliot’s narrator in The Journey of the Magi‘, ‘It was (you may say), satisfactory.’

The poem also asks ‘were we led all that way for /Birth or Death?’

I spent Boxing Day evening re-reading Dennis O’Driscoll’s New and Selected Poems after seeing postings about his sudden death on FB. I never met him, nor even heard him read, but have always treasured his poems which suddenly seem eerily prescient.

Christmas is a time when birth and death bring each other into high relief. From the sublime to the ridiculous, I suddenly remember the Archers and Nigel Pargeter falling to his death from Lower Loxley Hall and how the Archers’ producer gave it away on the Today programme by saying Christmas always involves a birth and death. Christmas is loosening its moorings, becoming a festival of light, a consumerfest, ‘holidays’ in the US and yet, essentially, Christmas still centres around a birth – an unconventional one in so many ways.

And any birth, any new liife, requires the death of an old one, a moving forward. Conversely, death presages birth –  I was struck by how the apocalyptic predictions of the end of the world according to the Mayan calendar soon metamorphosed into accounts of the birth of a new and kinder era.

Dennis O’Driscoll repeatedly returns to the theme of the prequels and sequels of sudden death in his poems. ‘Someone’, his most famous on that theme, can be read here. Other forms of absence include childlessness – his poem ‘Spoiled Child’, for example, part of which is quoted here. He lost both his parents when he was young and assumed responsibility for his younger sibliings, becoming a civil servant on his sixteenth birthday, the youngest ever, losing a carefree youth in the process but mining a rich seam of poetic material in the world of bureaucracy. It’s not surprising that death haunts his poems – the person missing from an office photograph, loss of parents and the passing of time.

His is a religious take on the world, that we should always be aware that we might meet our maker unexpectedly at any time. And that is the great mystery – as Matthew’s gospel puts it ‘Ye know not what hour …’ How would we live our lives differently if we knew how long our lives would be? What would we do today if we knew there was no tomorrow?

Alexander Pushkin has an untitled poem on the theme of not knowing when or where. The late New Zealand poet Allen Curnow has written a thrilling and exciting version that is included in Elaine Feinstein’s anthology ‘After Pushkin’. I can’t find the poem online but it’s worth seeking out the anthology – new versions of Pushkin poems by twentieth century poets including a magnificent one by Ted Hughes made in the last months of his life.

I just read that Dennis O’Driscoll’s funeral was attended not just by poets such as Seamus Heaney and Thomas Lynch, but also by Michael Higgins, President of Ireland. Dennis O’Driscoll’s work is complete now, no more poems. I’ll never get to hear him read but can still read his poems and essays. When Pushkin was dying on a bed made up in his library, after being shot in a duel, he is described as waving to his bookshelves and saying ‘goodbye my friends’.

There’s something mysterious in how Dennis O’Driscoll seems to have rehearsed his own sudden death in his poems. Similarly, Alexander Pushkin described in detail a duel on a snowy January day in his poem Onegin and was killed in a similar one.

2012 has passed, 2013 is born and poems live on …