What Do I Want With Eternity?

Jay Hopler’s final collection, Still Life, joins a canon of work by poets facing mortality.
A man rows a boat toward rocks and a waterfall; musical notes are visible in the water of his wake.

In 2017, the poet Jay Hopler learned that he had two years to live; he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer. As he explained in a recent episode of The Poetry Magazine Podcast, he assigned himself the task of writing a book of poems in the time he had left. That book, Still Life (McSweeney’s, 2022), was published last month. A dark, profoundly imagined encounter with impending death, it’s also a celebration of, if not life exactly, then the creative energies that make life worth living. It’s also a paean to enduring love; the book is dedicated to Hopler’s wife of 13 years, the poet Kimberly Johnson. Sadly, the book is now a last testament, too. In mid-June, as this essay was being finalized, Hopler died, at age 51.

After reading Still Life, I began to reflect on the poetry of imminent demise. Some poets “rage against the dying of the light.” Others make fastidious preparations. “Have you built your ship of death, O have you?” asks D.H. Lawrence. “O build your ship of death, for you will need it.” Still others look forward to … something—if not an afterlife conceived by one of the major world religions, then a personal cosmology that illuminates, albeit tentatively, what might come next. A few, Hopler among them, don’t seem to believe in anything beyond this world, and their poems seek to close the book on their sliver of human experience.

The poets I’ll discuss here are reacting to their human constraints. They portray these constraints as vividly as they can and look through the lens of the imagination to see beyond them. What they want, mostly, is a place to stand, footing on the cliff edge, however unstable, and whatever kind of knowledge the view permits. They seek answers, of course, but they also leave the living with questions, even assignments, as they, too, build their ships of death.


Let’s begin with Hopler, whose case is, after all, most on my mind. The poems in Still Life, his third collection, careen through a bitter argument with a faithless conception of death, railing against the unfairness of it, longing to leave behind something that will inscribe the poet’s enduring devotion for the partner who will survive him:

it was she that lit the world just then
& not that ember of a sun
her light like a struck string fretting its zing against the pic-
nic tables
may that be the music you hear
when they unplug the ventilator

That shocking last line is characteristic of Hopler’s approach: music abuts and invites a confrontation with the unspeakable facts of illness and death and, perhaps, hedgingly, offers succor.

The notion of immortality strikes Hopler as funny and as obviously impossible. He states this plainly in the two-line poem “Meditation on the Italian Cinema”:“LAvventura was too long for me. / What do I want w/ eternity?” Yet, these poems are rife with glances at the poetic tradition, especially the Romantics. Hopler uses their stanza shapes, their diction, their rhyming singsong to dismiss their faith in an eternal life in poesy, as in “Radiation Vault 4”:

O, let there be in here w/ me a moth
      Whose DNA w/ mine will mix
       When they flip the switch
                & the room goes nuclear

I read this off-kilter sonnet as a response to Keats’s “When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be” with its practical solution to the problem of how to deal with the terror of death: “then on the shore / Of the wide world I stand alone, and think / Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.” Transcendent poetic thinking is of no use to Hopler, who instead imagines a sort of superhero origin story in which, through radiation treatment, he is reincarnated as a moth enthralled by a porch light, a heaven it believes it has already reached, “the work already done.” This is satire in its most serious form, a mockery of Keats’s, well, Romanticism. Hopler offers humor as one of the few potentially enduring bequests the dead make to the living.

In his refusal to imagine death, Hopler presses himself to imagine life—“my life’s a poem my death’s / been writing for a long time”—without him in it and to argue against the thin spirituality of “the good death”: “death abhors a well-wrought urn.” His ship of death is leaky by design, likely to sink, which is fine with him.


Tim Dlugos, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1990 at age 40, practiced a more straightforward form of acceptance. His discursive poems are in the manner of Frank O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” credo, with a strong dose of James Schuyler. They track his day-to-day life in the gay scene of the time, looking at art, listening to music, watching TV and movies, namechecking friends and lovers, and recording the hazy aftermath of parties and sexual encounters. Dluglos’s default mode is celebration. His hungry gaze takes in everything, if not always joyfully then willingly, as in the hospital sonnet “All Souls’ Day”:

         My hospital bed, rosebuds, and beyond
         Yellow hibiscus on the windowsill,
         Gauze crisscrosses blue sky.

How does a poet of such capaciousness meet death? His masterful long poem “G-9,” named for the AIDS ward at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan, is, among other things, a celebration of life from a deathbed, an eagerly unfolding snapshot of the characters who populate the busy ward, where patients die or go home or pass the time as they’re treated:

these people are my friends,
in the process of restoring
me to life a second time.
I can walk and talk
and breathe simultaneously
now.  I draw a breath
and sing “Happy Birthday”
to my roommate Joe.
He’s 51 today. I didn’t think
he’d make it.

Dlugos always has a light touch—even here, there is no friction, no pushing against the unhappy facts: “My life’s so full even, / (especially?) when I’m here / on G-9.” Listing his symptoms, he finds something akin to the pastoral poet’s pleasure in cataloging:

                       the shiny
hamburger-in-lucite look
of the big lesion on my face;
the smaller ones I daub
with makeup; the loss
of forty pounds in a year;
the fatigue that comes on
at the least convenient times.
The symptoms float like algae
on the surface of the grace
that buoys me up today.

What a surprising simile. Aren’t algae beautiful too, if seen in the right light, atop the right body of water? The carefree curiosity of Dlugos’s poetry takes on a kind of grace, an acceptance of whatever comes. Death, for Dlugos, “will be a great adventure”:

I hope that death will lift me
by the hair like an angel
in a Hebrew myth, snatch me with
the strength of sleep’s embrace,
and gently set me down
where I’m supposed to be,
in just the right place.

Lucille Clifton, who battled cancer in the last two decades of her life, also conceives of a “right place” in death. In her late poem “mother-tongue: we are dying,” she imagines death as a kind of a compass. It is not frightening, and though the poem indicates undeniable sadness, Clifton is not resigned to death—there isn’t that sense of disappointment. Instead, she is trusting or knowing.

Clifton is an accessible writer, but that doesn’t mean her poems are simple. She wants readers to attend deeply to each word. In the poem’s opening lines—“no failure in us / that we can be hurt like this, / that we can be torn”—the words hurt and torn carry a lifetime of varied pain and loss, of being sundered from loved people, places, and things. Clifton is a master, perhaps the master, of the meaningfully vague poem—the usual rules of “show, don’t tell” and of readers’ craving for specificity don’t apply to her. Death is like that: personal, esoteric, the one possession people make for themselves and carry in their own way.

Throughout her work, Clifton traces herself back to the women warriors of the African Dahomey kingdom. These are the “daughters of dahomey / their name fierce on the planet” who “beckoned to me / five generations removed” and who “swooped in a circle dance” around her in her poem “amazons,” which is about being diagnosed with breast cancer. In Clifton’s mythology, these women live on “the mountain we were born to” and it is back to them that her Wordsworthian “clouds of glory” lead.

For Clifton, death is not an end but a return, an enfolding into a timeless ancestry. She chooses the simplest, most elemental metaphor—“death is a small stone”—and lets it do its work. She transforms death from an abyss into a talisman, a helpful, hopeful object carried “in a pocket” all one’s life, leading people on “our way home.” There is grief in this little poem—people are “hurt” and “torn” by death—but no rage or fear.


C.K. Williams wrote his final book, Falling Ill (2017), as he was dying of cancer. These poems provide a play-by-play of the inner and outer experience of suffering through a protracted, painful death, both “the messy undomesticated sprawl // of thought” and “consonant grunts and lung farts” of dying. Though at various points Williams appeals to an unnamed “you” (who may be the poet’s own self) and to “Lord Death,” the poet’s conception of death is corporeal, quotidian. There is no god nor any afterlife, only the ferocious, even frantic will to outfox time through art.

For Williams, death seems to be another disappointing experience, like so many about which he felt compelled to set the record straight throughout his long career. For example, “Is how we live or try to live supposed to embellish us? / All I see is the residue of my other, failed faces” (“Glass,” Collected Poems). The book is an unpleasant read and seems to me to mostly fail in its last-ditch quest to make art of the unknowable urgency—or blankness—that awaits. Reading these poems, I feel as though I am granting a stranger’s dying wish, to bear witness to his punishing final days.

Williams’s most direct confrontation with the specter he faces occurs in “Lord Death,” a poem near the end of the book, a hopeless climax to a dispiriting journey:

As though death this time was speaking
aloud oh youre here again death murmurs
this time its you longing towards and for me
while Im refusing to hear you as I well can
for its not for you or anything living to share
in the dimensions of your stay here

The persona Williams assumes to give voice to death is cold, condescending, dismissive, devoid of anything resembling consolation. All it can tell Williams—and hence all he can tell us—is that we can’t know the true nature of life or of death, and we already knew that. Faced with the ultimate unknowable, Williams’s imagination goes blank and offers only a voice that rebuffs. Of course, this is the point, the meaning—there is none. There is only the decay of the body, the snuffing out of consciousness, and the pitiful resistance to that snuffing out. Even art becomes a mere record.


In his posthumous collection Loves Instruments (1995), Melvin Dixon, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1992, at age 42, grieves friends, lovers, and strangers who died of the disease. “This poem is for the epidemic living and dead,” he writes in the book’s last piece. “Remember them, remember me.” In starkly plain language, he elegizes his community and himself. Like Williams, Dixon avoids any notion of transcendence but for a different reason. His project in this book is partly journalistic: he must get the facts on paper and create a record that won’t be easily forgotten or dismissed.

In “Turning Forty in the 90s,” Dixon introduces a pair of lovers in the throes of illness:

              So here we are:
Dry, ashy skin, falling hair, losing breath
at the top of the stairs, forgetting things.
Vials of Sentra and AZT line the bedroom dresser
like a boy’s toy army poised for attack—
you’re red, my blue, and the casualties are real.
Now the dimming in your man’s eyes and mine.
Our bones ache as the muscles dissolve,
exposing the fragile gates of ribs, our last defense.

Dixon allows himself only one metaphor here: the vials “like a boy’s toy army”—a naïve image, almost innocent, suggesting how ineffective this defense is. There is no cure, no one is coming to help, but this suffering must not be forgotten. Unlike Williams, Dixon does not greet death with anger—we, not “Lord Death,” are the agents of our diminishment if we are unwilling to remember.

Dixon looks heavenward once in these poems, only to be rejected by the dead:

Leave us alone.
We did nothing but worship our kind.
When you love as we did you will know
there is no life but this
and history will not be kind.
Now take what you need and get out.

The dead offer no answers nor any comfort. They dismiss Dixon’s appeals to collective memory and warn him against the consolation of any kind of afterlife: “history will not be kind.” Yet Dixon leaves readers with a note of hope in the book’s final poem, “And These Are Just A Few …,” a list of names that’s also an earnest appeal to memory, somewhat in the manner of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”: “This poem is for Chester, remember Chet? Whose battered lungs/ Left him screaming the purest poetry on empty hospital walls.” “Purest poetry” is not a cure, but here we are, 30 years later, reading Dixon’s words; we haven’t quite forgotten.

Hopler fittingly ends Still Life with the short poem “obituary,” which is most remarkable for what it does not contain—the means to express its final gesture, the notation for a song, the score printed on the page in the body of the poem. As Hopler explains at the back of the book, the score was written “by Paul Rudy, at my request. I asked him what he thought I would be if I were a piece of music. This music was his answer.” Hopler’s deathbed poems attest to the longing for connection and community in life. To render this book’s final gesture—this poet’s final gesture in poetry—one needs more than the book and one’s eyes. Musical instruments are required, as are people to play them and a singer: this poem necessitates a whole little community of living people, a posthumous continuation of Hopler’s life.

There is nothing Hopler can leave in these poems—to his wife or his readers—that compensates for what is lost, but he can set a task—play this song—that will summon loved ones and others into a living act of celebration and memory unbound by time. He’s not trying to micromanage his memorial; instead, he offers something, if not lasting, then ongoing—something to do that will be as doable a hundred years from now as it will be tomorrow. This is what he means by the book’s last words, placed after the song: “he has been survived.” This wise poet knows he can never have the last word, on death or anything else. There is no last word.

Originally Published: July 11th, 2022

Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of several books of poetry, most recently Welcome to Sonnetville, New Jersey (BOA Editions, 2021) and the essay collection We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress (Graywolf, 2018). He is also the editor of the selected poems of Russell Edson, Little Mr. Prose Poem (BOA Editions, 2022). He teaches...