It comes from the Latin — De mortuis nihil nisi bonum — our habit to speak no evil of the dead. Even unpleasant human beings, in death they enjoy a modicum of respect —in funeral services, in formal obituaries. I suppose it’s a matter of timing. Except for the vilest amongst us, in time we are all remembered more for our virtues than our sins. One day, when it’s my turn, I shall be grateful for this.
But I’ve always found it much easier to speak of the dead than of the living. To write about them, at least. I have often listed “dead things” amongst my “interests.” And I don’t mean just skulls and archaic words. I also mean people. Fictional characters and historical figures felled by tragic ends, sure. And the real people I once knew.
Mercifully, I have only a few loved ones who have died before me. I think of them often, what was learned from their lives, their deaths, guides and motivates me still. And I have written about them in ways I cannot write about those who are still alive. I know many writers have made a habit, a career even, from revealing intimacies about their families, their friends, their lovers. I could tell you that I don’t share the notion that when you are in a relationship with a writer, you open yourself up to being documented, of having your life shared in public. That I am doing it all out of respect. That’s only partially true. The real truth is, I am not so brave.
It’s one of the reasons I don’t think I am a great poet. Because I am not brave enough to fully reveal the truth of my emotions, and especially things that involve others. I often feel guilty about this, of not writing poems about for and/or about my mother while she is still alive, for example. I once did a series of poems I called the Sideshow Sonnets, in which I paid tribute to my favourite people by re-imagining them as sideshow freaks. Only a few were recognizable, the others composite sketches. Like so much of what I do, cloaked. A few years back, I even stopped my own journalling. In part, because so much was too difficult to look at on the page, but also because I spend a lot of time imagining my own death, and I worry about what private thoughts might be read after I’m gone. I did write an honest poem about this, called There Are Things About Me You Wouldn’t Like. Then I burned it.
These days, I think alot about dead people. Not so much ones who are physically dead, but those who are just gone. And I’ve started writing their obituaries. Because I find it interesting to chart a story from the end to the beginning. And because I want to say only the best things about them.
“Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.” — Lao Tzu.