Do You Remember the Time?


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Don’t you feel bad that you made fun of Michael Jackson after hearing the tragic news of his death?

To say that I “made fun of Michael Jackson” ignores some of the complexities of my response to that query a couple of months ago. I quoted poet Mary Jo Bang, and if Michael Jackson had read that column, I bet he would have been thrilled, so no, I don’t feel bad for the response I gave.

Now, do I feel bad about his death? Yes, very much so. I wasn’t a follower of his really, but he’s been an icon throughout my youth and adulthood — the news shook me up and saddened my heart, as I know it did for many around the world. One of my students in Uzbekistan admired Michael Jackson so much that he wrote a sonnet for him, and I admit that I didn’t ever take the time to type it up on the computer, so it exists somewhere in my big bag of Uzbek stuff and I can’t find it now. That student’s name was Aziz H., and I found another poem he wrote, only one line of which I will quote:  “In the trapping of night only some will survive.”

That is not a pessimistic observation — it is astute, and it is one that poets have made and continue to make in various forms. The one thing you can predict about life is that it will end. What is truly astonishing is not that some people die, but that so many people make it through. Life is really hard — we have to deal with poverty, disease, accidents, unkind words and hand gestures on the morning commute, bad tacos and cold coffee, voices…but we have moments of unparalleled joy and delight that make life so precious. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to remind us all how precious life is, and maybe Michael Jackson was so huge that his death will be felt by people who really need to be reminded of that. Here’s Mary Jo Bang’s “A Sonata for Four Hands,” from her book, appropriately titled in this case Elegy.

I say Come Back and you do
Not do what I want.
The train unrolls its track and sends its sound forward.

The siren unrolls its sound and sends itself
Forward. The first day of the last goes forward
As the last summer you’ll see.

The dirge is all wrong for the season. Death remains
Wedded to mystery. …

And now how
Do we resolve this predicament?
The body becomes the art

Of identity. A face
In a photograph. The bas relief
Around the morgue door.

You, singularly you. And gone

Farewell. Fare very well to all those who have passed. • 29 June 2009