Jenny Diski’s Jisei: On Death Poems and In Gratitude
How Writers Approach the Unapproachable
A couple of years ago, I participated in a reading at Hollywood Forever—a cemetery in Los Angeles that has resurrected itself (okay, okay) by hosting cultural events. The Green Room was the funeral director’s office, and as we waited there, I looked at his bookshelves, where I came across a paperback called Japanese Death Poems, which gathers hundreds of jisei, poems written in the final moments of life. Do I need to say how much this moved me? I’ve long wondered about the paucity of death literature in western culture. Sure, we riff on death, worry it or eye it with insouciance, but where is the direct testimony of experience? I can summon them on one hand, the inside takes on what Janet Hobhouse once described as “this dying business”: Hobhouse’s The Furies; Raymond Carver’s A New Path to the Waterfall; Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality; John Updike’s Endpoint and other Poems.
To that, we can now add Jenny Diski’s In Gratitude, which may be, along with Carver, the finest of the lot. “My experience with death has been minimal and to varying degrees distant,” Diski tells us. “I have never been in the presence of anyone when they died.” Still, when she was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in July 2014 (she died on April 28 of this year, just after the publication of In Gratitude), there was never any doubt what she would do. “The future flashed before my eyes, she begins the book, “in all its preordained banality. Embarrassment at first, to the exclusion of all other feelings. But embarrassment curled at the edges with a weariness, the sort that comes over you when you are set on a track by something outside your control, and which, although it is not your experience, is so known in all its cultural forms that you could unscrew the cap of the pen in your hand and jot down in the notebook on your lap every single thing that will happen and everything at will be felt for the foreseeable future. Including the surprises.”
I don’t know what courage is, and in any case I, not unlike Diski (“Under no circumstances,” she insists, “is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer. Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, losing, winning, or bearing”), resist the use of such a word to frame the act of living or dying or making art. But maybe this is it. Or maybe, more likely, it is an attempt, futile and necessary at the same time, to assert for as long as it is possible, the illusion of control.
The jisei, of course, represent the opposite: death as letting go. This, however, can be a more complicated—or should we say less complicated?—process than it appears. In his long and excellent introduction to Japanese Death Poems, editor Yoel Hoffmann recounts the story of a Zen priest who wanted to “die properly.” And so, he “changed his clothes, wrote a death poem, and died sitting upright. The priest who took over his position in the temple was lying inside his mosquito net one summer day when all at once he saw the figure of a man. He looked more closely and discerned a tall priest. When he asked, ‘Who are you?’ the figure replied, ‘I am the priest who lived here before you. At the hour of my death I paid so much attention to my appearance I am now having difficulty in crossing to the next world.’”
Late in her book, Diski shares a related, or parallel, anecdote, about a woman in hospice “crying out, calling without words, moaning in unending misery.” When Diski asks what ails her (“I meant apart from the obvious,” she adds, acidly), a nurse replies, “[S]he’s not ready. She hasn’t thought enough about it and now it’s very hard for her.” I imagine these passages as bookends: Two koans, two parables, each illustrating its own tragic irony. Ready, not ready, does it matter? Death is coming anyway. And yet, what both Hoffmann and Diski are describing is the need for acceptance, not death as performance or denial, but as the most literal of end points, the moment at which we cease to be.
Cease to be: I wonder if that is explains the dearth of dying narratives, as if death were the enemy, the antithesis of living rather than its inevitable result. I understand this point-of-view, share it even, and I’d be lying if I said I found no consolation there. But consolation … what is consolation in the face of nothingness?
Diski cites Nabokov, that famous sentence from Speak, Memory: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” The solace this offers, however, is at best temporary, a way of intellectualizing a question that refuses to be intellectualized. Common sense tells us—the trouble is that there is no common sense when it comes to death, nothing but an awful certainty. Still, Diski insists, “This thought, this fact, is a genuine comfort, that only one that works, to calm me down when the panic comes. It brings me real solace in the terror of the infinite desert. It doesn’t resolve the question (though, as an atheist I don’t really have one), but it offers me familiarity with ‘The undiscovered country from whose bourn / no traveler returns.’ I’ve been there. I’ve done that. And it soothes.” The terror to which she is referring is existential; it is a terror I recognize. For me, the most essential aspect of In Gratitude is that Diski never once averts her gaze.
And yet, can terror be consoling? How is it possible not to look away? I think of Dylan Thomas, his magnificent “Fern Hill,” the closing lines of which—“Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea”—address, for all their vivid beauty, the problem not of dying but of living. I think of Thomas Lynch and Sheldon Nuland, Jim Crace’s novel Being Dead, all examining the mechanics, rather than the metaphysics, of death. I think of Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates, writing from the immediacy of widowhood. “Life changes fast,” Didion observes. “Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” Yet despite her directness, her stunning sense of being in the moment, Didion, like Oates, is reporting back on what it means to be a survivor; the life that changes in the instant is not over because it is still being lived by her.
This is a story about death we want to hear: how it was reckoned with, or even overcome. This is a story about death that doesn’t end in disappearance, that pulls out some sort of grace or perseverance at the close. This is a story about death that is really about resilience, which is another way of saying loss or grief and how we handle them. The dying here, in other words, remains at a distance, someone else’s, no matter how close in the mirror it appears. Contrast that with Updike’s poem “The City Outside,” which wonders how life can continue, relentless, even as we are consumed with dying; “I’ve been injected,” he writes,
and yet the same light imbecilic stuff—
the babble on TV, the newspaper fluff,
the drone of magazines, banality’s
kind banter—plows ahead, admixed
with world collapse, atrocities, default,
and fraud. Get off, get off the rotten world!
These lines recall the Zen priest, so caught up in the performance of his death that he could not experience it, except Updike is coming at it from the other end. “[T]his was it,” Carver agrees in his poem “Proposal,” “so any holding back had to be stupid.” Indeed, the idea for Updike—or, for that matter, Carver—is to evoke dying as a state of being, in which we are both living and moving away from living, from a humanity that will go on, for a time at least, without us: “Get off, get off the rotten world!” As Hitchens told a Los Angeles audience not long before he died, “It will happen to all of us that at some point, you get tapped on the shoulder and told not just that the party’s over, but slightly worse: The party’s going on, but you have to leave.”
It’s fitting, perhaps, that Hitchens should frame his death in terms of other people, a party he will have to leave behind. He defined himself, after all, by his status as a public writer, a commentator and provocateur. “I am badly oppressed,” he writes in Mortality, “by the gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read—if not indeed to write—the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity.”
Diski brings her own unsentimental focus to In Gratitude, but she is subtler, not only able but also eager to parse her inconsistencies. “Real writers (as opposed to crowd-pleasers),” she argues, “are often uncomfortable if they aren’t writing on the edge and even crossing it, rather than policing their prose to keep away the censors—particularly that inner one.” Real writers: Are we surprised the term is one she applies to herself? “I’m a writer,” she explains, “have been since I was small, and have earned my living at it for thirty years. I write fiction and non-fiction, but it’s almost always personal. I start with me, and often enough end with me. I’ve never been apologetic about that, or had a sense that my writing is ‘confessional.’ What else am I going to write about but how I know and don’t know the world? I may not make things up in fiction, or tell the truth in non-fiction, but documentary or invented, it’s always been me at the centre of the will to put descriptions out into the world. I lie like all writers but I use my truths as I know them in order to do so.”
What Diski is describing is writing as investigation, not of the exterior world so much as interior experience. Or no, I don’t mean to set up a false dichotomy. Let’s say instead: of the exterior world through the filter of interior experience. This is why In Gratitude is so powerful, because it is never not conditional. Its observations are impressionistic, doubling back on one another, growing out of the curious interplay between engagement and memory. “I can’t remember a time,” Diski writes, “when I didn’t provoke myself with impossible thoughts.” She’s referring here to the big questions, those of eternity and meaning, the ones that, even in the best of circumstances, stir up that stomach-dropping sense of existential dread. Staring one’s own death in the face … well, you get the idea. “Both infinity and death were beyond me,” Diski seems almost to whisper. “… You and then not you. Me and then not … impossible sentence to finish. The prospect of extinction comes at last with an admission of the horror of being unable to imagine or be part of it, because it is beyond the you that has the capacity to think about it. I learned the meaning of being lost for words; I came up against the horizon of language.”
I don’t want to belabor this, and yet I do. The horizon of language, isn’t that where every real writer needs to live? The impossible sentence is the only one worth writing, whether we are dying or not. And anyway, we are all dying, every minute; “It’s absurd,” Diski reasons, “to complain about the uncertainty of life expectancy—we’re all just a breath away from the end of our lives.” Here, we see the key to In Gratitude, which is the way it universalizes the particular, reaching out from Diski to us. It’s not simply a matter of her dying but also of ours. Death, in that regard, becomes the currency, the common ground. “I am scared of dissolution,” Diski acknowledges, “of casting my particles to the wind, of having nothing to cast my particles to the wind with, of knowing nothing when knowing everything has been the taste of every day. … What will I not know when I am not a knowing machine? There are too many questions for an ordinary curious mind. How can nothing be nothing? Help me out here, philosophers, there isn’t much time.”
That night, at Hollywood Forever, I almost stole Japanese Death Poems; instead, I ordered it as soon as I got home. What was I looking for? Proximity, or closeness, a sense of approaching the unapproachable, the tension between deep connection and deep distance that exists at the heart of literature. Such a tension also marks the jisei, which range from the philosophical to the starkly personal. “The melting snows: / an edifice / of eighty years,” writes a brothel owner named Kenju, who died in 1759. Or this, by the haikuist Rochu, who died fifteen years before that: “Is it only me? / Come to think of it, all rests on / pillars of frost.” My favorite, though, is this one, written in 1812 by the poet Kanga: “A chill: / My soul turns into / an icon.” It’s a nearly perfect evocation of another tension, the tension of no longer being here. How are we to live, knowing that it is all for nothing? How do we make meaning when everything dissipates? “And did you get,” Carver ask in his final poem, the appropriately titled “Late Fragment”:
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
The implication is that it depends on us. This is the antithesis of the Zen priest in Hoffman’s story, or of the woman Diski hears in hospice; this writer is ready to let go. But is he? He’s still writing, creating his death poem, his epitaph. What, Diski wonders throughout her remarkably clear-eyed chronicle of a death foretold, is the point of consciousness if not to express itself? She is not referring only to her own. “The terror,” she writes, “is not … occasional and contentment doesn’t come into it. Where am I going? Nobody knows.”