Richard Cecil is the author of four collections of poems, the most recent of which is TWENTY FIRST CENTURY BLUES. He teaches in the Hutton Honors College of Indiana University.
TO AN ATHLETE DYING YOUNG
Smart lad, to slip betimes away. A.E. Housman.
Afraid to drown but drawn to water sports,
I paddled nervously our hired canoe
while my expert guide steered with her oar.
Gradually I overcame my fear.
The waveless lake didn’t rock the boat;
no storm clouds gathered overhead. Our talk
flowed freely back and forth although (because?)
we couldn’t look each other in the eye.
She watched me paddle; I watched the bustling shore—
walkers, joggers, cyclists on the path.
We talked of ways of dying—slow or fast?
By fire or water? Stroke or heart attack?
I said the best would be just as you sip
the dry champagne served by your stewardess,
your European Airbus hits an Alp.
The worst is slow paralysis and dementia,
she said (she’d had experience with these).
As we bantered, cheerfully, of deaths
that both of us did not yet have to face,
I noticed quite a ruckus on the shore—
cop cars and ambulances, flashing lights,
and a helicopter floating overhead.
That can’t be good, she said, and she was right,
we learned when we returned our rented boat.
A boy fifteen—a football player—drowned
just yards from shore, with many friends around.
Fifteen! No fifty years of taking shit
from teachers and from bosses, no divorces,
no aged parents crawling toward their graves,
just one panicked, agonizing minute,
then poof! It’s over. No potential there
for pain and disappointment and decline.
And yet, to us who didn’t drown that day,
no worse death than that boy’s could be imagined.
First one or two, then gangs of five or six
nibbled foliage, eyed me as I passed
on my evening walks around the block.
Afraid that they might bolt into the street,
I practiced looking harmless. Don’t mind me
I’d mutter when they glanced up from their meals
of grass, or ivy, or tulips in the spring.
At first they’d lift their tails and scamper off,
but soon they grew accustomed to my passage,
pranced a step or two out of my way
and then resumed their browsing. Hello, Deer!
And then they started merely to glance up—
the young looked at the older ones for guidance—
as I slowed down to count and to admire them.
Seven today, including a spotted fawn.
One blocked the sidewalk, reaching for a branch
of tender maple leaves; two others paused
in the middle of the street as cars approached,
braked, and waited for the pair to cross.
They gazed at each other, then the cars,
and then, since asphalt can’t be cropped,
walked leisurely to my side of the street
to join the herd. No, herd’s not quite the word.
To join the loitering gang. They blocked my way,
so I detoured them, walking off the curb,
first making sure no cars were bearing down,
since cars here stop for deer but not for people.
From the corner of my eye I glanced at them
nervously, while they stared back at me.
Don’t worry, Person, they muttered under their breath,
we’re bigger and stronger than you, but probably harmless.
IN A HURRY
Twice I’ve been aboard a train—
once in France, once in Spain—
that killed someone: a suicide
who, like Tolstoy’s Anna, died
when she flung herself beneath the wheels
of the TGV Express from Lille,
and a child my racing Talgo hit
at a level crossing near Madrid.
Delays, rumors, missed connections;
traffic stopped in all directions.
While waiting for the tracks to Nice
to clear, I told myself, be patient!
as I paced the Monte Carlo station
milling with the milling crowd.
Complaining, grumbling, aren’t allowed
when someone’s death’s what makes you late,
not getting sidetracked by a freight.
What’s an hour or two’s delay
compared to a lifetime thrown away?
Of course I thought of the child killed
decades before. The Guardia Civil
in their tri-corn hats patrolled outside,
so everybody stayed inside.
“Que pasa?” men and women asked
in hushed tones until at last
the conductor explained. I didn’t get
much of his Spanish, but women wept
and men looked grim, and muerte and niño
are universal, like Esperanto.
Held up twice by fatal trains!
The odds against this are insane
I muttered as I paced the platform
The suicide had not been born
when the child’s life got snatched away.
In the interval, my hair’s turned gray.
I’m older than the two combined,
still riding Europe’s fastest lines,
obsessively glancing at the time.
(We’re late! Speed up! Why this delay?)
At last, the signal! We’re on our way
once more aboard Death’s high-speed railway.