Ars moriendi

It’s true, she died peacefully, in her home.
This is all she wanted; all we asked for
(after asking for a great number of things,
each denied in turn, by doctors, her body
and all we can’t control like fate, fortune, etc.,
making us all proficient in processing
that narrowing of options, the recalcitrance
of rejection, the ways the world keeps its own
council, while everything that draws breath
is hunted by something else that kills it
to live: a reality almost banal to everyone
familiar with waiting rooms or nature shows).

We grasped that being greedy about death
is not unlike demanding too much from life:
you are bound to be disappointed in the end
unless you adjust and adapt. It’s inadequate,
dispiriting succor, but your chances of surviving
the experience intact may ultimately involve
conceding how much worse things could be;
how many animals—human and especially other
kinds—who die in pain, alone, with nothing
acknowledging the occasion. Finally, after all
the unanswered entreaties and accommodations,
at last one learns to savor the minor blessings
that turn out, in hindsight, to be sort of salvation.

My mother, after too many trips to the hospital,
was able to fall asleep, forever, in her own bed,
surrounded by those of us that loved her best.
She knew (we knew, too) circumstances obliged us
to put our energies into making certain her death
was as painless as possible. She died tranquilly…
it seemed. But how can I say that with certainty?
She was not in distress yet no longer with us—
consigned to our care, we were resigned to whatever
alleviation our arsenal of medications might offer.

And there are times when this simply won’t suffice;
because I don’t know if she still suffered and couldn’t
tell us what she felt. And I wonder who will hear me
when, someday, I too try to describe that final darkness.

Christopher Columbus’s Mermaids*

Not half as beautiful as they are painted…

He described the same false sirens so many
others had sworn seeing: creatures familiar
not by sight so much as invocation; stories
recycled through centuries about the beautiful
half-humans who lived amongst their cold-blooded
cousins, tails that turned to flesh if taken ashore.

Such absurdity, both fabrication and fancy, says much
about libidinous men who stared too long at nothing
but a brutal blue horizon, unbroken in every direction.

What of the breasts, they lamented, seeing little
but scales and whiskers, more man than fish; nothing
at all like a woman—much less a dream to get lost in.

And during the last stretch of more lonely days at sea,
this was yet another miracle that wouldn’t materialize,
not unlike those new lands decreed by divine providence.

(*In 1493, during his voyage that led him to the “New World,” Christopher Columbus described three “mermaids”—which were in all likelihood manatees—as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”)

Bill Cosby’s Blindness

It’s like the old joke about men having two brains,
or whatever ways male impulse and privilege have
forever been defined or denied, or else amalgamated.

He had appetites, certain types have always said,
whenever they wish to whitewash unsavory deeds
done in the disservice of others, without recourse.

Savor their gift, they also say, because nothing else
matters in the end, which is why wives and partners
and conquests are often, at best, asterisks in obituaries.

His mind, his heart, his art, all in the right place, right?
It was just his brain (you know which one) obliging him
to act in ways contrary to those better angels—and alibis.

Do what I say, not what I do is, of course, always there:
the script spoken during unfortunate aftermaths; it’s hard
on men who are nothing if not instinctual beings—by design.

A TV street preacher using sit-coms and stand-up routines,
you caught so many flies in your filthy web, not man enough
to seduce or enthrall, but waylay, by divine wrong, your prey.

Not unlike a billionaire hustler hiding behind golden gates,
you cast subtle aspersions and got grandiloquent on
a congregation quick with its wallets and magnanimity.

Even while you whined about pound cakes and shilled
pudding pops, you refilled prescriptions, cheese for traps
you served in tainted cocktails: they drank and you defiled.

In the land of the blind, a man with no eyesight is king, or…
some shit like that; is this all you have to offer, at long last,
as you parade your pique, a penultimate, sorry performance?

Cast the first stone, some still say, despite everything
we’ve heard and seen from so many he tried to silence,
He’s America’s Dad, and look how his wife stands by him!

The same logical pretzels good masters employed, pretending
they were men of God with little ladies they were raising to rule
the world, even as they cleaned up dirty deeds and dirty drawers.

Side action’s the collateral damage of men with desires & history’s
routinely reconciled the ways our cultural heroes have victimized
the voiceless while they got busy, ardently reshaping our realities.

Hey Cos, at what point did it occur that you’d become Everything
you claimed to despise, but worse? Your trespasses all empowered
by prestige and what only those with lost souls dare call prerogative?

In the Unlikely Event of a Water Landing

We’re going to discover some things.
For starters: who was paying attention
to the long-suffering flight attendant
when she went through the motions of
how to go through the motions of dying?

We’ll see who screams first, who covers their eyes,
and who gives two shits about the well-being
of anyone aside from themselves; who prays,
who panics, and who can sleep through anything.

All of us will have the rarest of opportunities
to see what we’re all about. Take yourself,
for instance: did you live every moment as if
it might be your last? Are you ready to give up
anything for another second? Do you now fear
paradise lost and are you abruptly prepared
to make all kinds of bargains, however absurd?

And what about all the choices you made and don’t
get to make, ever again? All those meals not eaten,
vacations not taken, music or movies never discovered,
friends never made (or lost), jobs neither taken (nor lost),
hair not grown gray or gone altogether, not able to savor
or suffer through the slow implosion of your bones and
organs, the slow dance of death freeze-framed forever,
a bomb dropped by the indifferent designs of either
a higher power or the uncoiled machinations of Nothing.

Suddenly cancer doesn’t seem so awful, especially
if that could buy you another decade or two before
receiving this death sentence. Dying of old age is asking
for a lot, you’ll agree, but boy why not a heart attack
or massive stroke, or a lightning strike, or a swarm
of exotic bees chasing you into the afterlife? Anything
except seeing the past tense flash before terrified eyes
all around you, everyone given the most ironic gift
of prophecy—this odd lottery win where everyone loses.

Did you take your marriage vows seriously, or else
regret never securing a soulmate—for this world
or whatever comes after? (Alone here, lonely there.)
Were you a good friend or father or son or something
you can cling to, with pride, as these seconds slip away?
What about your carbon footprint? Is your conception
of recycling amended as you consider what’s about to happen
to your mortal remains, once the clean-up crew is done
and, like everyone else with skin in the post-game, you’re meat
for all the creatures that thrive in the dirt, efficiency experts
since the beginning of time? Do you wish you’d worried
about any of this ontology when it might actually have mattered?

Do you believe in miracles? Do you have the audacity to dream
of any scenario in which you survive—rising from the wreckage,
remaining above the waves, bobbing on blood and oil, unappealing
to the sharks but a magnet for the rescue pilot’s radar? That hero
they’ll make a terrible movie about—featuring a prominent actor—
which your life, immortal on the screen, would never have inspired?

Old School

This is old school, I say
to my niece who, at five years old, is now
the same age her uncle was when his parents
transported him to this place—new then, old now.

Old school, she repeats, repeating things
I say because I’m older, because I’m still
interesting, because I am…old school.
Even I can see that.

You Can’t Go Home Again,
someone once wrote and he was wrong.

Of course you can; all you have to do is never leave.
Leaving it behind does not mean it leaves you.
(And certainly, I can’t be the only grown child
who returns often—in dreams, in memories and yes,
in my mind, I must confess: earnestly, ardently, often—
to the old streets that I came to outgrow,
the way we outgrow games and bikes and friends,
exchanging them for jobs and cars and co-workers.)

You can always go home, and you need to go home.
It’s only when you want to go home that you should
start asking yourself some serious questions.

“Did you play kick the can?” my niece does not ask.
She also doesn’t ask if I ever played
Red Rover Come Over or Smear the Queer.
Those games got neglected, or else we learned
to play them in ways not measured in bravado & bruises.
And I wonder if we are better off:
Growth granting us the eventual awareness that everyone is
queer and no enjoys being…over.

I put away childish things each time I think
about them, storing them safely inside my heart
where grown-up games can’t make them say Uncle.

“Uncle, did you play?” she doesn’t say.
(She doesn’t know everything, but she knows
enough to understand her uncle was never young,
the way she is and the way she’ll always be, and
far be it from me to tell her otherwise.)

Question: Can you play?
Remember when that’s all we used to say?
Summers summarized in a phrase we learned
eventually to overlook.

This uneven field (Field of Dreams, I’ll never say)
was our Fenway and with tennis ball and wooden bat
we righted the wrongs of an evil world, where
Yaz never struck out, Bucky Dent was a blip,
and the Curse of the Bambino played off-Broadway
those days, that ceaseless, sweltering summer in 1978.

(Summer, seventies, Schlitz—not malt liquor, my friend,
this was strictly old school—no bull. I remember
block parties, warm beer, burnt marshmallows, mosquitoes
and putrid bug repellent that didn’t kill anything
but made us stronger (Don’t let the bed bugs bite, I’ll never say.)
I had no idea how little I knew but I knew this much:
If there was a beer besides Schlitz or Bud I was unaware;
That’s all adults drank back in the bad old days.

Play ball! no one needed to say because we played ball
anyway: ball was our business and business was good.

Get it! The ball would invariably make a break for it
ending up in the gutter (we called it sewer but, of course,
We were old school). Without a second thought
we pried off the manhole cover and dashed down into semi-darkness.

We never thought twice about it—we were young.
The game must go on! no one needed to say, we knew.
(I look now, and think: I wouldn’t go into that hole
for all the allowance money I never earned.
I know there are rats and who knows what else
down there: the things our parents never realized
they should warn us about.)

We never worried about the things that weren’t
waiting for us, down there in the darkness.

“What are they doing?” I don’t ask aloud, noticing,
just in time, before I can call attention to it,
two cats in coitus, doing what they do when they’re young & free.
That’s something I’ve never seen and as I worry about
my niece asking me to explain I understand: I’m old now.

Old school, I cannot say (to myself I say this).
That’s how it happens.
This would never have happened, then.

(I didn’t know much, but I knew this: cats
did not fornicate and kids fought only with fists.)

But this is what happens when you go away.
Back then, in our close and cloistered community
even the cats had discretion (they were old school).

Or maybe they were mortified, because
bent over with booze or barbiturates they were
silently screeching behind closed doors,
all of us, unknowingly, out in the light
winning the World Series, while wicked women
garrisoned themselves in dark alleys, behind
the anodyne of automatic garage doors.

It’s quiet, now. Our mothers were so quiet, then.
Please allow them to have been happy,
in our memories if not in their actual lives.

I don’t remember, but have a feeling that if
I think hard enough, I will recall things
never said and therefore never forgotten.

I drink in the past and am reminded of youth,
which tastes unlike anything other than
what it is: freedom.

Cold, sour Schlitz (of course I took a taste),
with those sharp & awkward silver ring-tabs
we pulled off for the privilege of first sip.

That is old school, I don’t tell my niece.
It’s only when you’re older that beer tastes
like freedom, but it’s a borrowed brilliance—
a manufactured feeling—just like in school
it’s cheating if the answer’s already in your lap.

The things they can’t package or make you pay for:
That they never tell you about until you’re old enough
to know better: that’s what freedom is.

Curiosity killed the cat,
someone once said—and they were right.

But something’s going to get all of us
eventually, whether we ask for it or understand it.

The cats are gone, maybe they’ve gone home
(they can always go home), back to their families and
those heavy silences and the salvation of routine.

(Do they still have strict rules about no TV,
and everyone present around the table when
dinner’s on the table at six-thirty sharp?
I certainly hope so, for their sakes.)

Or maybe they’re getting down to business—
dirty deeds and dirty work go hand in hand—
Down in the darkness, doing their thankless task,
keeping the sewers safe from rats & reality.

Curious or content, we know enough to take
whatever it is that life offers up.

We went into those sewers the way we went into the world:
Unafraid, unencumbered and above all,
unconcerned about so many things
older people were kind enough to never…say.

“Old school!” my niece repeats, curious.
Smiling, she does not comprehend at all.
Old school, I don’t say, reticent
because I do remember it (all).

If curiosity doesn’t kill us, contentment gets there quicker.

How did we go down there, then?
How do we go out there, now?

Sean Murphy has appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and been quoted in USA Today, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and AdAge. A long-time columnist for PopMatters, his work has also appeared in Salon, The Village Voice, Washington City Paper, The Good Men Project, Memoir Magazine, and others. His chapbook, The Blackened Blues, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. He has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and served as writer-in-residence of the Noepe Center at Martha’s Vineyard. He’s Founding Director of 1455 ( To learn more, and read his published short fiction, poetry, and criticism, please visit and @bullmurph.