Notes from the Other Side

h1 July 3rd, 2009 by jules

image comes from chemicalparadigms.wikispaces.comThis week, I’m re-reading Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, a National Book Award finalist, published back in 1997. Lynch is an essayist and poet, but he also—as the first chapter’s opening line tells us—buries a couple hundred of his townspeople every year. Yes, he’s the funeral director for the small Michigan town in which he lives — or at least he was back in ’97.

It’s a moving, life-affirming collection of essays, despite how it all might sound. As I started re-reading the book the other day, my eye was drawn to an excerpt from Jane Kenyon’s stunning poem, “Notes from the Other Side,” which Lynch uses to open the book. Then, I looked up the poem in its entirety, and I was blown away. Beautiful.

I’ve said this before here at 7-Imp, so I won’t belabor the point, but I think about life after death a lot. Not morbidly. And not in a way that indicates I want to discover its mysteries any time soon. I think—well, I know—it’s because I’ve lost one too many of the very-deeply-loved ones in my life to not be curious and wonder where are they, if anywhere? What are they doing? Will I see them again? I don’t give it too terribly much thought beyond that, as I very much subscribe, for better or worse and with apologies to my philosophy-loving friends, to the Edie-Brickell-what-I-am-is-what-I-am mode of philosophy. Really. Choke me in the shallow water before I get too deep.

But I do wonder about it. A lot. Enough to make me think I’m probably weird.

This is the best poem I’ve ever, ever read on the topic. The final two lines made me do dramatic things like gasp, clutch my heart, and nearly swoon.

And isn’t it nice to read that about books in the afterlife?

“Notes from the Other Side” by Jane Kenyon

I divested myself of despair
and fear when I came here.

Now there is no more catching
one’s own eye in the mirror,

there are no bad books, no plastic,
no insurance premiums, and of course

no illness. Contrition
does not exist, nor gnashing

of teeth. No one howls as the first
clod of earth hits the casket.

The poor we no longer have with us.
Our calm hearts strike only the hour,

and God, as promised, proves
to be mercy clothed in light.

Today’s Poetry Friday round-up is being hosted by Tabatha A. Yeatts at the wonderfully-titled Opposite of Indifference.

17 comments to “Notes from the Other Side”

  1. Not weird, Jules. Well, not weirder than a lot of us. I agree, those last two lines of Jane Kenyon’s poem make you nearly stop breathing.

    If you like the Lynch book, try THE DEAD BEAT by Marilyn Johnson next.

  2. Agreed — totally not weird. Some don’t wonder about this topic, because faith tells them they know all the answers… but really, none of us do, humility and realism compels us to admit. We have no more clues than the next guy. However, while acknowledging that I may not know the details, I have the luxury of leaving my options open. Mercy clothed in light sounds like an option I embrace wholeheartedly. Beautiful poem.

  3. Jane Kenyon’s and Donald Hall’s story just kills me.

    (Bill Moyers did a fabulous documentary about them, A Life Together, in the early ’90s. There’s a 50-some-minute preview (?) available here.)

    This poem was a great choice, Jules. Thanks.

    (You are NOT weird — not in this regard, anyway!)

  4. Thank you so much for sharing, Jules. It’s a beautiful poem.

  5. I can’t stop reading it over and over again!

  6. Jules, beautiful poem as always. I’ve discovered so much lovely poetry through you. In terms of after death thoughts, you might enjoy “The Art of Dying” by Peter Fenwick and Elizabeth Fenwick. Lots of fascinating anecdotes about deathbed experiences and near-death experiences. But what makes it particularly compelling is that Peter is neuro-psychiatrist and fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Britain. So he attempts a somewhat scientific look at the possibility of some kind of consciousness after death.

  7. We had a screening of the PBS Frontline special about Thomas Lynch’s funeral home here at my public library in Birmingham, MI, and his brother answered questions about it. It was a beautiful documentary. If you haven’t seen it, it’s available to watch online at

  8. I sometimes worry that I don’t think about this topic enough. It’s something I used to think about a lot, but being with my husband through his entire process of dying gave me some peace as far as this was concerned. Not that I know what happens, but I feel like whatever it is, it’s okay.

    This poem makes me think, though, in a good way.

  9. I KNEW I liked you!
    Thomas Lynch is a fabulous writer and that book is actually on my bedside table right now. Have you read his poetry book STILL LIFE IN MILFORD?

  10. Hi, everyone. Today is trying really hard to dupe me into thinking it’s a Saturday, so I almost forgot to check in here.

    Julie L., many thanks for the book rec. Will look into that. Glad I’m not weird.

    Tanita, that is just about the best description of faith that I’ve read — “the luxury of leaving my options open,” that is. Glad I’m not weird.

    John, there’s no link there. Could you maybe possibly perhaps re-send it? Glad I’m not weird. At least in one regard.

    Tarie, that was my initial response to the poem, too. Other than the histrionic heart-clutching and such.

    Bonny, aw, thanks! So glad to hear I’ve evangelized some poems you think are good. I feel like there is so much more about poetry I need to learn and that Eisha’s Poetry Friday entries are generally WAY more enlightening. (She would be a fabulous poetry instructor—wait, poetry prof sounds better, what with the alliteration and all—whether or not she knows that.) Thanks for the Fenwick rec. Will look into that, too.

    Laurie, THANKS! Can’t wait to see that.

    Adrienne, that makes total sense. My very elderly grandmother (as in, she was born in 1911) told my sister the other day that my late brother was coming for her and that she needed to get into her suit. That has nothing to do with what you said; I just like that story. I’m very, very, very glad that you have that peace. I have peace, knowing that my brother is finally at peace. Sendak once said that perhaps death is a dreamless sleep. At least for a while. For Donnie, that would be good.

    Linda, well, I already knew FOR SURE that I liked you. Smiley emoticon. Smiley emoticon. And thanks for that rec!

    You guys have lined up some great reading—and documentaries and such—for me. Merci beaucoup!

  11. Thank you very much for this. Tomorrow we will bury my cousin. He was 34. Died unexpectedly after a fierce and quick bout with cancer.

    I think I’ll share this with his mother, my aunt. I’ve been looking for the right poem.

    I, too, have lost so many that I think about what is after death. I think often about my own mortality.

    I can’t thank you enough for this. And, I am a huge Kenyon fan. Don’t know why I hadn’t picked up a volume. Probably the cloud of sadness.

  12. I think about it a lot too, mostly because I am so looking forward to that Mercy Clothed in Light, and no plastic. That line about the howls and clods of dirt just knocks me down. Thanks for sharing this.

  13. I love the idea of no more contrition.

    And Jules, of course you’re totally weird, but not for this. I think anyone with any smidgen of conscious thought has to be curious about what happens after. And IN NO WAY are my posts more anything than yours, goofball.

    This poem – the portrait it presents – is itself mercy clothed in light.

  14. Oh Susan, I’m so sorry.

    Andi, yes, we can only hope the afterlife has no plastic. Glad you like the poem.

    Eisha, word. up. (To me being weird and the poem’s rockitudeness…)

  15. Jules, I also think about death a lot–it’s such a mystery! Kenyon’s poem is gorgeous. That bit about no one howling as the first clod of earth hits the casket. My.

    Since she wrote about her cancer so much, you’d think it would be morbid, but her peace-filled poems are a balm, I think. I have a new (to me) collection of her poems on my desk upstairs and I plan to read it this fall, when the house is quiet and I can think straight.

  16. […] the Ex-Wife on the Occasion of Her Birthday” by Thomas P. Lynch (yes, the same guy that Jules mentioned in her PF post last week. What can I say? She piqued my […]

  17. Like someone else said, I just want to keep rereading it. Thank you! Now I need to go check out a book of her poems.

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