Death be not proud: We’ve Been Here Before

There were varied responses to an earlier pandemic, and I first read the following poem in a 1989 collection, Poets for Life: 76 Poets Respond to AIDS. David Kalstone was James Merrill’s friend whose study of Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, and Robert Lowell was cut short by his death in 1986. Caro is an Italian endearment.

There were varied responses. What are our varied ways today? How to be in solidarity in a time of distancing?

From Two Poems for David Kalstone
by James Merrill, The Inner Room, 1988

1. Investiture at Cecconi’s

Caro, that dream (after the diagnosis)
found me losing patience outside the door of
“our” Venetian tailor. I wanted evening
clothes for the new year.

Then a bulb went on. The old woman, she who
stitches dawn to dusk in his back room, opened
one suspicious inch, all the while exclaiming
over the late hour—

Fabrics? patterns? those the proprietor must
show by day, not now—till a lightning insight
cracks her face wide: Ma! the Signore’s here to
try on his new robe!

Robe? She nods me onward. The mirror triptych
summons three bent crones she diffracted into
back from no known space. They converge by magic,
arms full of moonlight.

Up on my own arms glistening sleeves are drawn. Cool
silk in grave, white folds—Oriental mourning—
sheathes me, throat to ankles. I turn to face her,
uncomprehending.

Thank your friend, she cackles, the Professore!
Wonderstruck I sway, like a tree of tears. You—
miles away, sick, fearful—have yet arranged this
heartstopping present.

Header image:
Chinese funeral, 1813
Courtesy antiqueprints.com

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