[I am issuing this poem on the Emperor Hadrian’s birthday, b.Jan 24th, 76 AD. The above picture is of the Royal Melbourne Hospital which due to an emergency stay there over a decade ago contributes something to my thoughts. Hadrian reflected in verse upon his death on his deathbed, adding some rhyme to the unrhymed traditions of Latin verse]
HADRIAN’S QUESTION: A POEM OF LIFE AND DEATH
Carbolic freshness has the strength of spring
The polished gleam recalls returning light
But nothing’s vernal here. The senses
Shrink upon this path and seek escape
Before the implicit sentence of the wards.
Past swing doors, corridors and the beds
In public row and private room where lie
The many of expectant or exhausted face
The cheer of callers from the outside world
Sounds hollowly against these plain white walls,
And much is forced. There’s more relief on
Floors below where birth lets life partake
Of festival, or else a limb repaired
Or growth excised provides excuse for
Convalescent holiday. It’s then that
Propped on pillows patients reign
As monarch for a day, brief object of
The kind concern and offerings of friends
Who sense a permitted respite on
The one way street this place adjoins.
The laughter and the chat of visitors
The bustle of the passing staff
Does not exclude, it may increase, what
As regards the floors above, at intervals
Haunts consciousness: the silence of extended
Sleep, the menace of approaching ends
Disguised, resisted, little named.
If fate’s decree is not for murder
Battlefield or quake, it’s here that death
Now chemical and sanitized holds court.
Here life declines attached to drips and heart
Machines beside bare walls and screens
With scarce one image or a word
Of anything that went before or is beyond
(Unless by signed agreement that
The counsellor or priest may come).
The open, democratic world prefers
World partings left unspiritual, no
Mention of a final moment near
Life clung to by the fingernails seems best.
And thus in intervals of consciousness
Eyes fixed securely on her TV screen
The croaking nonagenarian gasps
And seeks assurance it is true
That Collingwood has won the cup.
Such knowledge feels more crucial than
The time that soul must sever from
The earthly form and glimpse, bewildered,
The vacated room, this space which
Careless of all love and hate, holds
Summary of what’s been lost and won
That’s striven and been struggled for
Along the highway of a human life.
The room remains indifferently but
Totally itself as does the street below
The pedestrians, the racing traffic
Culture, Science, centuries, the history
Of precisely what if just one exit
Towards but shadows of pure void could
Negate each breath of being and of sense?
And so…”Where goes my little wandering soul?”
The fading, failing emperor asks
“It was my body’s guest and friend.
To what sites dark and harsh and bare
Without my usual jokes might be my way?”
Imperial privilege itself stood nothing proof
Against cold winds of Hades and its shades,
Once deemed the universal fate unless great
Merit raised above the stars. There
Hadrian posted Antinous without a thought
That he himself might join him there.
It’s Hades dark, oh soul, is where your
Most affinity still lies, it draws you there.
What journey did you think to make –
To endless sleep or else eternal bliss
For which you lived all unprepared,
Tuning no instrument at the door?
From off your bed of sickness soul
Ascends like incense up and to the rite,
That judges self and all its covenants.
What way was yours, what truth, what life?
There’s no existence that’s not God.
Hence what’s the need to fear decease except?..
Don’t leave without the destination
Known already and possessed within.