Original poem reprinted online here: "Death" by Kwame Dawes
Originally read: July 14, 2013
More information about the Poet: Kwame Dawes
Here's Kwame Dawes reading "Death". And there is a difference of how I read the poem in my mind versus how Kwame Dawes read the poem. For me, the violence and the viscera stood out for me, but when I heard Kwame Dawes read the poem -- it's not the violence, it's what's learned through progression.
The poem itself uses narrative technique, but also reinforces a sequence with first couple of lines, "First your dog dies and you pray / for the Holy Spirit to raise the inept / lump in the sack," For me, the language of "dog" and "inept" has more of a cynical view already set in the beginning. But when I heard the poem, the line seems more innocuous, and the focus is more towards:
[...] but Jesus's name
is no magic charm; sunsets and the
flies are gathering. That is how faith
What's the difference? Accumulation versus pointed. In my initial reading, the accumulation brings a sense of anger in the frenzy sense -- everything and everything sucks. But the pointed plays in the poem here.
So, the "you" (note not the speaker), leaves the the death of the dog to create death. Yes the middle part is uncomfortable to read for me, but it serves an important purpose. Note the juxtaposition of tenderness and violence, "You let it lick / milk and spit from your hand before / you squeeze its neck,". The focus here is observation. Devoid of emotional attachment, what power does death have? The observation continues until, "the stench / of the hog pens hides the canker / of death."
So all this observation, well let's say empirical evidence comes up to this conclusion, "Now you know the power / of death" Note, again, the focus is on you -- as in the other, as in the reader as well. The poem plays the multiplicity of attachment and emotion -- or rather the lack of. The actions are pointed, "that you have it, / that you can take life in a second / and wake the same the next day." Yeah, the violence teeters the line of serial killer, and it's what turned me off to the poem. But at the same token, what keeps me going is the line, "This is why you can't fear death." The lines feels cumulative -- but this is from two pointed experiences which colors the perspective of the "you."
The list of death continues with the observation of a dead man and then the formation of a syllogism, "You know that / a dead dog is a dead cat is a dead / man" And what the syllogism does (regardless of logic) is detach the "you" from death.
Which is the mindset to take on another:
Now you look a white man
in the face, talk to him about
cotton prices and the cost of land,
laugh your wide opened laugh
in his face
Note the allusion to southern politics with "cotton prices" and the idea of ownership of physical material with, "cost of land," but what's curious here is the "laugh you wide opened life" -- to what? The idea of ownership? The idea of economics? The idea of understanding? This part is pointed, but also open to interpretation since the scene comes out of nowhere, but fits with because the setting is consistent.
"and you will dies as easily / as live. This is how a man seizes what he wants" There's the mindset of nothing to lose here pushed to the extreme. But also this is the point where the poem goes heady, "how a man / turns the world over in dreams," which is butted up against the simple, "eats a solid mean and waits / for death to come like nothing."
The similes slows down the list, but the simile is focused towards "death to come" which has "positive" connotations, "like the open sky, like light/ at early morning." To the last simile which is focused on an image of another man -- red pinstriped trousers, black top hat, yellow scarf.
"and a kerchief dipped in eau / de cologne to cut through / the stench coming from his mouth." For me, the automatic response is "death = stench" since the word "stench" was used a while back in the poem. But now I wonder. The sense of smell is pretty well used in this poem. I think this applies more than the conceptual like "death" more of "the personal definition of death" appears to "you" in the form of the actual, and is now to the metaphor. Yes. Probably not.