Death takes them all, that’s why
We never see it. Death’s never in
The picture. But everything we see, we see
Because death has. Death took the pictures.
Death looked at Chloe whom the poet
Begged not to run to her mother. Chloe
Ran into the oblivious arms of death.
Quintilius lies in the sleep that goes on
Without ever ending, and the music has faded away
That could have restored blood to the veins of the shade
Death saw. Lydia no longer
Wakes up to hear the sound of gravel thrown
Against her shuttered windows in the night.
Death pictured what lay behind the shutters
And Lydia grew old on the journey between
Her chamber and the dark street where death waited.
O passerby, do not refuse a few
Handfuls of sand to cover up the corpse
Of Archytas. It may be you who needs these rites
Some day, when death has viewed you as he did Archytas,
Who counted all the uncountable grains of sand
On the lonely beach. Death pictured my mother
And my father on the Picton foreshore, cheek by cheek
Under Gemini, twin sons unborn, tinkle
Of jazz from the ferryboat. And death looked at their sons.
LISTEN to ‘To Death’ by Ian Wedde
Ian Wedde was born in Blenheim in 1946. He spent part of his childhood in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and England before returning to New Zealand at age 15. One of the most admired poets of his generation, he has also written novels, short stories and art criticism. In the mid-1980s he co-edited the ground-breaking anthology Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse with Harvey McQueen. Since 1994, he has been curator of art and visual culture at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. The Commonplace Odes (2001) marks his return to poetry after a hiatus of nearly a decade.
Wedde comments: “Death is one of the themes in The Commonplace Odes which winds right through the book and is the main business of the final poem, ‘Carmen Saeculare’. It is there (the theme) in formal ways, as a kind of address — the gravity of the funerary ode, sombre, and respectful of grief; and it is there (the theme of death) as a flipside of anarchic appetite, disrespectful of ordinariness which is not lived as though this life were your last. ‘To Death’ has borrowed a number of personifications of death from the odes of Horace (Chloe, Quintillius, Lydia, Archytas, etc) and has threaded them on an idea carried over from the previous ode (mine not Horace’s) which derives from my own long-dead father’s lifelong habit of taking photographs. Because he took them, he was never in them. We don’t see death, because he takes the pictures. Death pictures something, he frames it up, it’s going to die. So get a life.”