by Diana Arterian
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013
24 pages / UDP Page
When my 12 year old daughter rolls her eyes at me, I tell her stop it. I say, stop it. You shouldn’t treat me like that. I’m going to die someday.
She says, Mom, I know.
My husband says, Both of you, stop it.
But I can’t. I can’t stop. So I tell her, we’ll be dead forever. Just think about that: forever. Infinity. All of time. And we are only alive for a little second of it, and we barely even get to know each other, and you want to waste the little time we do have being alive rolling your eyes at me.
My husband says, Please, Sara. Not this shit again. Don’t say that.
Jeez, Mom. Seriously. I know we’re going to die.
But you don’t get that it is really soon. I could die tomorrow. So could you.
My husband says, Stop. No more. Stop saying that shit tonight. Just not tonight. Let’s just watch a show together, and enjoy our evening. Please, he implores, not tonight. No death stuff tonight.
The book of poems, Death Centos, by Diana Arterian is a book of poetry made by collage and with constraint. Arterian has created a mixed tape of famous figures’ final words. Her poems pull the final phrases of famous persons from their resting places of mythology and arranges these phrases into poems. Death Centos, conceptual in conceit or not, is a book of poems that is rich and profound. The author doesn’t seem as displaced as in most pieces of conceptual writing. This contributes to a feeling of stability within the text. The poems are full of hearty material. The words are the actual final words of folks before death. Most of the folks quoted carry some importance in the trajectory of civilization. These words lend to the power of the poems, but that isn’t the whole story. The arrangement of the words is of paramount importance. I am not a poet. And because of this I can consume poetry in a way that allows my mind to form ideas from the poem, or access to the subtext in a way that feels more mystical than an outright technical analysis would. I’m talking about feelings here. I feel that the work is good. I feel the poems are strong. I felt stirred by them, and provoked. I take this to mean that art is working.
In the first poem “I” in the section LAST WORDS OF THE DYING there is a list at the side of the page highlighting the people whose words have been arranged in the poem: Ludwig van Beethoven, Frederic Chopin, Thomas Edison, Franz Ferdinand, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Victor Hugo, Timothy Leary, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Theodore Roosevelt, Tom Simpson, Rudolph Valentino. There are only ten stanzas in the poem and the punctuation defies orderliness. There are no clues here, just a list of contributors. From the first I realized there would be no real correlation between the order of the contributors, and the poems’ inclusion— or, if there was, it would be more work than any book of poetry should be. I found myself wanting the poem to align with list of personas so that I could figure out who said what at the end of his life, but Arterian wasn’t going to let that happen.
Perhaps this description of my experience with this conceptual piece of work seems pedestrian to you. I think though, that my experience is worth talking about. For so long I felt shut out of conceptual work. That is a huge part of the culture to miss out on. Conceptual projects and poems intimidate cultural consumers. MFA programs like the one I went to are rife with what could be either interesting experiments or half-hearted attempts at grabbing some attention. You have to get close to tell the difference. Only now, years after school, do I find myself brave enough to get close, to engage, and to speak about the work. However, by no means am I an expert. I am a dilettante.
Arterian’s first poem taught me how to read the rest. It taught me what to do from the first. I think this says something about the accessibility of her work. About the potential appeal. Not everyone is going to care about poetry, but everyone should feel welcome to engage. I think that the content of Death Centos is inviting. Macabre, yes, but death is coming. To each of us. And “this is the fight of day/and night.” This is a space of common ground. This is a book of inclusiveness. This is a book of successful appropriation where the original text adds up to so much more than any of the snippets.
Each of the poems begs to re-read. There is a smoothness despite the punctuation. The poems flow and drip. Arterian is a master at moving you down through poem at a steady pace. In the poem “V” in the first section of LAST WORDS OF THE DYING three names are listed down the side: Warren G. Harding, Frida Kahlo, Martin Luther King Jr. I read the poem “V” three times in each voice, letting each one of these famous persons own the words of the others in a vision of their respective deaths.
Make sure you play “Precious Lord”
real pretty. That’s good.
I hope the exit is joyful
and I hope to never
This small poem, lends itself to three different deathbed scenarios. This is the definition of rich. It isn’t some extreme stretch of the imagination to come to these visions. These are prominent persons. These are common words. We have seen a million deaths on television, and read them in books, and watched them happen in person. The poem is arranged and presented to the reader by Arterian— but there is so much more to do, so much more that can happen, and it is all done, and it all happens in the mind of the reader. The mind of the reader forges associations, unearths painful memories, uncomfortable thoughts, and entertains ideas not wholly one’s own. The reader has to open up, to engage, and be willing to play. I love to be the reader. This is a hugely rewarding role. I appreciate what Arterian has done for me. She has arranged this whole experience for me.
By the time I got to the second section of the book, LAST WORDS OF THE CONDEMNED, the list of contributors was only of minimal interest to me. I was more interested in the poetry itself. The personalities and name dropping wasn’t what was I in it for anymore; though, they still mattered. They lend a buoyancy to the words. A reminder that Arterian feels personality to be important. A comfortable affirmation that who we are does matter. In the end, who you really were, or what you really said, may get lost in the shuffle, but you were alive. You had a name. And that could very well mean something.
Death Centos employs weighty words. We place value on the final utterances and we mythologize them. It is something we want to know. What did she say? What did he say? We want the echo. But death and time swallow up the meaning. With this book, and collaging of the words, the refusal to directly appropriate in a way that allows for direct credit to be given for the words uttered, Arterian mimics death. She remixes and stifles the dissemination of accuracy. What does it fucking matter who said it? These are final things people said. At the end people say things. We talk and talk and talk and try to make it important, but fuck, it barely ever really is. The fact that before we check out we throw out some last words says more about language than it does about us individually. Death Centos is a collective of moments, and reference to finality. Beginning, middle, end. We can’t stop. We just keep doing it. Repeating. Collecting. Sorting. Referencing. Arranging. Playing end. Playing dead. I’m dead. I’m dying. “I came here to die.”
Arterian researched extensively for this project. She faced death, like many do, by looking at screens. I don’t know if she has seen a dead body before. Or dead bodies. But I know that she has seen dying bodies. We all do. All day. Walking, deteriorating, love-professing, garbage-making, dying bodies. It is a choice to look at people from this perspective. It is horrific to look at people from this perspective. I have been in the presence of violent death. Suicide. A .357 in the mouth. A couple shots. The first didn’t take. And I swear to you. The death on your face is more real to me. The eventual death of the man handing me his credit card across the counter at work is something I ruminate about during the transaction. I see death everywhere and Arterian does too, and I thank God for this book.
My focus on death doesn’t come from depression but an obsession with life. There are some people I know that are so wonderful and so amazingly fucked up that I feel crazed at the idea of their mortality. I enjoy collecting vintage cook magazines because the copy in them is so simplistic and innocent it makes me cry. I feel something close to spiritual communion when I watch an episode of Young and the Restless on my iPhone. Just the memory of taking acid and jumping off a bluff is enough to justify all of existence. But what does it matter if existence is justified? It doesn’t. It doesn’t matter in the face of finality.
Arterian closes with the poem “On Innocence”:
Something very wrong
is taking place tonight.
I am innocent,
We are innocent. The state
has succeeded in its quest
for my life . .
And I understand that the state here is in the context of the condemned and the political— but shit. I mean, we are all condemned. We can politic, and petition, and write laws, and read the Bible, and believe in realms beyond but eventually, we can’t read magazines anymore. We won’t be able to hold the child we birthed that feels like it belongs to you whether 2, or 12, or 20 and breathe in the impossibly perfect scent of their head. It is temporary. The state is personhood, and the state wants us dead.
I am a devout Presbyterian—I am the Director of Christian Education at my church. Many believe I cling to religion for comfort, but at this point in my life religion offers the opposite of comfort. I don’t feel peace at church, but incessant challenge. We don’t interpret the Bible as literal in our church. It is metaphor. And metaphors are great. But shit, are they really enough to carry you into the darkness of forever. The poem Arterian includes in the CONDEMNED section titled “On God” is only 3 tiny stanzas long:
In this way
reveals to me
the highest skies
I take refuge
It scares me how small it is. Arterian curated this so it is a reflection of her, this little address to God, but if I am honest with myself a small and slight homage is reflective of my own relationship with God. The slightness is more frightening than any Stephen King novel. It is more unsettling than any grotesqueries. What scares me are not monsters nor murder but mundaneness and meaninglessness. These are the true horrors.
Arterian’s Death Centos is an emotionally challenging book. Emotional challenge, the visceral flip of the stomach at words on a page, is something of which I never tire. It is thrilling. It makes me feel alive.
I told my friend Bob about how I remind my daughter of the temporal nature of life to try and get her to treat me better. Bob told me I should be careful, because when she starts to believe me, when she starts to really grasp what I’m saying, it could send her straight past nice into hedonism. I suppose he has a point. It is easy to get submerged in my own perspective, never considering what the immensity of death could mean to others. That is why talking about death is good. That is why reading about death is good. That is why Death Centos is good.
I kiss my husband and instead of saying I love you, I say, we are going to die.
He says with steady kindness, I don’t give a shit.
I say, but life is too short.
He looks at me, holding my face, and pleads his typical plea, Live baby, please, just live.
Sara Gerot lives and writes in Iowa. Her work appears in Black Clock, Pank, A Bad Penny Review, make/shift, Bookslut and other publications. She thinks a lot about life and death.