Original poem reprinted online here: "On the Death of a Colleague" by Stephen Dunn
Originally read: June 24, 2013
More information about the Poet: Stephen Dunn
Generic exposition. This might come off as a bit surface in my analysis, but this is how the poem operates in the first stanza. The title itself, "On the Death of a Colleague" opens up a eulogy tone which means there's going to be portions of nostalgia and exposition to understand the current. For example, "She taught theater, so we gathered / in the theater." There's no metaphor, or any poetic tricks here -- just simple statements which lead to generic remembrances, "We praised her voice, her knowledge, / how good she was / with Godot," The reference to Godot (existential journey viewed and acted through the absurd) will set an undertone throughout the poem.
However, we're back to the generalized descriptions of the passed, "She was fifty. The problem in the liver." Okay, not that personal of description, but more factual, and when the scene goes personal, "Each of us recalled / an incident in which she's been kind / or witty." Yeah "kind or witty" are huge niceties. An impersonal rememberance.
But the speaker tells an anecdote where the passed was helpful which was about being unable to speak and how the recently passed helped him out when she, "placed her hand / where the failure was" while the speaker was lying down. And here's the joke, "I only could do it when I lay down" (speak that is). Noise. Even the speaker knows it's just noise to pass, "I was on stage and I heard myself / wishing to be impressive."
Note that the generic is meant for something. Here the speaker is showing the reason why -- to keep calm, to show grace -- but not friendship.
and no one spoke
of her face or the last few parties.
The fact was
I had avoided her for months.
With all this generic storytelling, exposition, and niceties building up, there's an expectation of something to break. There's the literal break in the stanzas when, "It was a student's turn to speak" and the student exposes who the teachers last few months. "She was drunk" and "she was a great teacher" and "someone should say / what everyone knew / because she didn't die by accident."
Here's the thing of this stanza which make me think this stanza is more meta-poetic than actual is the response from the student. It's not unheard of that a student should know much about his teacher. It's the delivery of the lines. This particular student is an unknown element that feigns knowledge, when in actuality (or perhaps reality), the student slings words to elicit a reaction from the duldrom. Regardless, if this line is true or not (especially the line), "because she didn't die by accident" it's the emotional behind the rhetoric that pushes the poem. Personally, I don't know how to feel about that -- the forced emotionally epiphany.
In any case the epiphany causes this scene, "Everyone was crying. Everyone was crying and it / was almost over now." The scene is told straight with the audience having to infer why "everyone was crying" but that's not exactly true in the poem. "The remaining speaker, an historian, said he'd cut / his speech short." also, "the Chariman stood up as if by habit / said something about lostt / and thanked us for coming." Not crying, not everyone, just the strong emotion behind the scene.
I think what solidifies the meta-poetic for me rather than the narrative is the last scene
[...] None of us moved
except some students
to the student who'd spoken, and then others
moved to him, across dividers,
down aisles, to his side of the stage.
Here's the thing. Where is the passed in all this? No where. The ending solidifies that this poem is not a eulogy for the dead. Not that it's disrespectful or anything -- more of that both sides didn't know the recently departed as much as each would like to admit.
Now, the colleagues -- they remember the kind and witty woman who did well with her work.
The students remembers the dying woman -- drunk and suicidal, but a great teacher.
What is there to honor here but tropes, not the actual? And here, when the students gravitate towards the spectacle sadness -- this shows a gap trying to reconcile one side to the other, but at what costs -- remembrance of the recent tragedy in lieu of a lifetime of both success and failures.