The End of Michelangelo
“Gerber, whose long practice of Buddhism has shaped much of his voluminous and illuminating body of poetry, has written a beautifully searching book that provides a space to meditate upon death, and in doing so, advocates a way to celebrate life until its very end.”
Dylan Thomas admonished readers to not go gentle into that good night. Emily Dickinson imagined a fly intervening with its buzz between the dying and the light. Yet despite the ubiquity, the inevitability of mortality, many are still caught off guard, shaken by the reality of death when it comes.
Like the rest of us, poets grapple with what it means to approach one’s end, or what it means to be left in the absence of a life we once shared with another. “Always the fear, not of death / itself, the dying or the being dead,” Dan Gerber writes, “but the uncertainty of what / may happen on the way.”
In the walk toward death’s horizon or in the wake of death’s intervention into our daily existence, we often turn to poems for consolation, for insight and illumination, as a tether to pull us across the chasm of loss and absence. The poems in Gerber’s tenth book of poetry, The End of Michelangelo, are a fine and priceless gift, a worthy addition to millennia of writing that considers what it means to age and to pass from our earthly bodies.
The book’s title makes reference to lines from a poem Michelangelo wrote to his friend Vittoria Colonna in the 16th century and that serve as an epigraph to the fourth and final section of Gerber’s book:
“So, even nature, trying,
From age to age, from face to other face,
To reach the best of beauty in your eyes,
Must now be old, like me, and close to death.
That is why terror, mixed with beauty, feeds
So strangely my desire:
I cannot think, or tell, what hurts or helps
Me more, after I gaze upon your face,—
The end of nature or this happiness.”
In the past decade, Gerber has been given ample reason to ponder Michelangelo’s question, having had close encounters with his own death, as he relates in “Almost Dying,” and losing many good friends to expected and unexpected ends. Among those friends was fellow Michigan writer Jim Harrison, who is resurrected in this book to offer instruction in the aphoristic couplets that comprise “Landscape at Eighty”:
“I don’t believe in last meals,” Jim said,
“I believe in lots of last meals.”
And while the poet declares in “Late” that “Death grows a little more in me each day,” it is those last meals, the plural and plurality of feasting on what this world has to offer, even in the final passage of older age, that make this book such a rich pleasure.
After more than half a century of working at poems, Gerber remains a writer in love with the world, who confesses that “Ages ago, I surrendered to nature,” and in that surrender began a long and intimate relationship with other-than-human lives: turkey vultures and hawks, condors and hummingbirds, deer and mountain lion, spiders and bees, dogs, donkeys, and butterflies. The sentience of the living world is even observed in the withering of pear blossoms: “I watch them closely, loving each gathering / wrinkle as it rises.”
The poet populates his pages with all the aforementioned creatures in a tone of hospitality and friendship, suggesting that he is not inherently better or more important than any of them but simply one among the community of life. And his long life includes missteps and trespasses, as related in “Haunted” in which he recounts the killing of a bat he thinks may be rabid but whose presence he later misses, wondering if he’s done the right thing. If, indeed, the animal was rabid or simply could not fly because the poet had not provided it a perch to fly from. The line between the human and the more-than-human natural world is often blurred in these poems. Gerber confesses that “When I had yet to learn the nature / of words, I had no sense / the trees and animals / I walked among were something / I was not.”
Fittingly, the book commences with “Walking toward the End,” the poet attending to what exists around him in a poem of physical insistence and deep metaphoric resonance:
“still late summer, I
may get a long way
before the cold nights
and the hunger of old age
consume me, a little
lighter each day, having
left more of life’s
sweet confusion in
the grasses I’ve been
tracking through since
the tree line a week ago . . .”
Always a poet of conversational diction, Gerber’s consistent use of liquid sounds and long vowels highlights his careful attention to line breaks that help the reader move clearly through the poem’s elegant lyricism. This creates a sonorous experience that braids nicely with the searching quality of the work.
Gerber’s poems are acts of negotiation as he looks backward over a long life and forward to what is unknowable. Although much of this work is one of acceptance and recognition, of a resolute movement from presence into absence, he continues to savor what is still left, taking his cues from unexpected parties, as in “Stay” where the poet’s dog provides the teaching:
“What do you see? I asked my dog as we
stopped a moment, both of us trans-
fixed by a sudden gust of wind, and she
wanted to watch and listen and to smell
the world we were discovering a little
longer . . .”
Or in “Wishing,” where the poet offers a shift in perspective, imagining a way to depart his mortal frame with the help of a turkey vulture or condor, body “consumed by the soaring birds / that have carried me / so high above the valley” where he becomes invisible to anyone watching from below.
Gerber invites the voices of many other writers and thinkers into his collection—including the likes of Rilke and Valéry, Dogen and Hui Neng—through a pervasive and discerning use of epigraphs that provide context for his own thoughts on aging and dying. Perhaps it should be no surprise that Gerber ultimately bows to another writer for the last lines about those final years, ending the book with a brief poem by the American poet, Samuel Menashe, who was born in 1925 and died a few weeks before turning 86 in 2011. Menashe provides a corrective or critique to Dylan Thomas, writing “Rue, not rage / Against that night” and recommending that what one ought to do before death is to “Sit in the shade, / Look at the sky.”
Poetry does not have to offer instruction or wisdom, but Gerber, whose long practice of Buddhism has shaped much of his voluminous and illuminating body of poetry, has written a beautifully searching book that provides a space to meditate upon death, and in doing so, advocates a way to celebrate life until its very end.