Valerie Grove Artist

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Nature Strikes Back 

This Mortal Coil
curated by Safia

Oh, Lady Midnight, I fear that you grow old,
The stars eat your body and the wind makes you cold.

Life really is all about death in the end…the inevitability. Isn’t that what a mid-life crisis is all about - you no longer feel the invincibility of your youth, people you know or admire pass away with increasing rapidity and suddenly, horrifyingly, you realise you’re more than halfway through it –  the sound and fury you’ve enjoyed and endured probably does signify nothing. And cue panic!!!

I’ve always been drawn to the gothic, the dark side of life, from an early age. Maybe it was listening to ghost stories from the African/Arabic communities my relatives had lived amongst, looking at photos of my grandfather in his wheelchair holding me as a baby looking so proud, being told how much joy I brought to him, dying and left buried in a country we had to flee and never return to. I remember at about the age of seven finding small, blurry black and white photographs of him lying in his coffin and of his headstone. I took them and hid them in my dolls house to stare at in fascination.

My mum suffered a serious and life threatening illness from an early age… even as a small child I understood the import from the hushed whispers… understood that if she died I might end up in the care of people who would not have treated me very well, a Cinderella-like figure! That fear defined my childhood.

From the ages of 20 to 29 I suffered a number of bereavements – my grandmother who was also like a mother to me, an aunt that I was close to, an autistic uncle misunderstood by the rest of the family who I always had time for and who shared my love of music, an older lover who passed away sitting in an armchair, glass of whiskey still in his hand and I had to get the police to break into his flat – so an understanding of my own mortality came quicker to me than most. And there’s nothing like a funeral to inspire fornication. Sex, the ultimate way to feel alive and experience oblivion at the same time. Quite addictive. The other duality is the wish to be immortal (why doesn’t a vampire bite me while I’m still young and looking good, dammit???) with the impulse to end it all. Haven’t we all had those fleeting moments where it’s just all too much and it would be so, so easy to just… Except that it isn’t and neither is it painless and luckily I’ve never had the courage to see it through.

I went to a cabaret show recently where the performer, Tempest Rose, held her own funeral, the hymns were karaoke songs, we threw roses into her empty coffin and she spoke about her experiences. It was a lot of fun. As she said, why wait until you’re dead to celebrate your life?

An Instagram meme I shared (so don’t blame me if it’s wrongly attributed) sums it up:

“Life is a shitstorm, in which art is our only umbrella." (Mario Vargas Llosa) 

I find that music helps, and poetry. So here are a selection of my favourite verses about grief and acceptance, the fear of death, raging against the dying of the light, the allure of “the consumation devoutly to be wished for” and the case for living.

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.​​

I also love the rendition of this poem in the film Dorothy Parker and the Vicious Circle ​ 

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

First Fig
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Dorothy Parker

Ere the birth of my life,
If I wished it or no,
No question was asked me,

It could not be so!
If the life was the question,

A thing sent to try,
And to live on be YES;

What can NO be? To die.

Is't returned, as 'twas sent ?
Is't no worse for the wear?
Think first, what you ARE!
Call to mind what you WERE!
I gave you innocence, I gave you hope,
Gave health, and genius, and an ample scope,
Return you me guilt, lethargy, despair?
Make out the invent'ry;

inspect, compare!
Then die--if die you dare!

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
Christina Rossetti

The Suicide's Argument Samuel Taylor Coleridge
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.  
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.  
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.  
Till then I see what’s really always there:  
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,  
Making all thought impossible but how  
And where and when I shall myself die.  
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse  
—The good not done, the love not given, time  
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because  
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;  
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,  
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,  
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,  
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,  
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill  
That slows each impulse down to indecision.  
Most things may never happen: this one will,  
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without  
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave  
Lets no one off the grave.           
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.  
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,  
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,  
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring  
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
There are cemeteries that are lonely,
graves full of bones that do not make a sound,
the heart moving through a tunnel,
in it darkness, darkness, darkness,
like a shipwreck we die going into ourselves,
as though we were drowning inside our hearts,
as though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul.
And there are corpses,
feet made of cold and sticky clay,
death is inside the bones,
like a barking where there are no dogs,
coming out from bells somewhere, from graves somewhere,
growing in the damp air like tears of rain.
Sometimes I see alone coffins under sail,
embarking with the pale dead, with women that have dead hair,
with bakers who are as white as angels,
and pensive young girls married to notary publics,
caskets sailing up the vertical river of the dead,
the river of dark purple,
moving upstream with sails filled out by the sound of death,
filled by the sound of death which is silence.
Death arrives among all that sound
like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it,
comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no finger in it,
comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no throat.
Nevertheless its steps can be heard
and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree.
I’m not sure, I understand only a little, I can hardly see,
but it seems to me that its singing has the color of damp violets,
of violets that are at home in the earth,
because the face of death is green,
and the look death gives is green,
with the penetrating dampness of a violet leaf
and the somber color of embittered winter.
But death also goes through the world dressed as a broom,
lapping the floor, looking for dead bodies,
death is inside the broom,
the broom is the tongue of death looking for corpses,
it is the needle of death looking for thread.
Death is inside the folding cots:
it spends its life sleeping on the slow mattresses,
in the black blankets, and suddenly breathes out:
it blows out a mournful sound that swells the sheets,
and the beds go sailing toward a port
where death is waiting, dressed like an admiral.

Nothing But Death
Pablo Neruda

Philip Larkin

How soon doth man decay!
When clothes are taken from a chest of sweets
To swaddle infants, whose young breath
Scarce knows the way;
Those clouts are little winding-sheets,
Which do consign and send them unto Death.
When boyes go first to bed,
They step into their voluntarie graves;
Sleep binds them fast; onely their breath
Makes them not dead:
Successive nights, like rolling waves,
Convey them quickly who are bound for Death.
When Youth is frank and free,
And calls for musick, while his veins do swell,
All day exchanging mirth and breath
In companie,
That musick summons to the knell
Which shall befriend him at the house of Death.
When man grows staid and wise,
Getting a house and home, where he may move
Within the circle of his breath,
Schooling his eyes,
That dumbe inclosure maketh love
Unto the coffin, that attends his death.
When Age grows low and weak,
Marking his grave, and thawing ev'ry year,
Till all do melt and drown his breath
When he would speak,
A chair or litter shows the biere
Which shall convey him to the house of Death.
Man, ere he is aware,
Hath put together a solemnitie,
And drest his hearse, while he has breath
As yet to spare;
Yet, Lord, instruct us so to die,
That all these dyings may be LIFE in DEATH.  
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.
We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.
Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.
We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.
Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

George Herbert

Because I Could Not Stop For Death
Emily Dickinson

But be contented when that fell arrest
Without all bail shall carry me away;
My life hath in this line some interest,
Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.
When thou reviewest this, thou dost review
The very part was consecrate to thee.
The earth can have but earth, which is his due;
My spirit is thine, the better part of me.
So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life,
The prey of worms, my body being dead,
The coward conquest of a wretch’s knife,
Too base of thee to be rememb’red.
The worth of that is that which it contains,
And that is this, and this with thee remains.  ​
Edmonton, thy cemetery
In which I love to tread
Has roused in me a dreary thought
For all the countless dead,
Ah me, the countless dead.
Yet I believe that one is one
And shall for ever be,
And while I hold to this belief
I walk, oh cemetery,
Thy footpaths happily.
And I believe that two and two
Are but an earthly sum
Whose totalling has no part at all
In heavenly kingdom-come,
I love the dead, I cry, I love
Each happy happy one.
Till Doubt returns with dreary face
And fills my heart with dread
For all the tens and tens and tens
That must make up a hundred,
And I begin to sing with him
As if Belief had never been
Ah me, the countless dead, ah me
The countless countless dead.
Sonnet 74
William Shakespeare

Edmonton, thy cemetery
Stevie Smith

Lady Lazarus
Sylvia Plath

I have done it again.  
One year in every ten  
I manage it——
A sort of walking miracle, my skin  
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,  
My right foot
A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine  
Jew linen.
Peel off the napkin  
O my enemy.  
Do I terrify?——
The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?  
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.
Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be  
At home on me
And I a smiling woman.  
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.
This is Number Three.  
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.
What a million filaments.  
The peanut-crunching crowd  
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.  
Gentlemen, ladies
These are my hands  
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,
Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.  
The first time it happened I was ten.  
It was an accident.
The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.  
I rocked shut
As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls
Is an art, like everything else.  
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.  
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.  
It’s the theatrical
Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute  
Amused shout:
‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.  
There is a charge
For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge  
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.
And there is a charge, a very large charge  
For a word or a touch  
Or a bit of blood
Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.  
So, so, Herr Doktor.  
So, Herr Enemy.
I am your opus,
I am your valuable,  
The pure gold baby
That melts to a shriek.  
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.
Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——
A cake of soap,  
A wedding ring,  
A gold filling.
Herr God, Herr Lucifer  
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair   
And I eat men like air.
Image credits: 
Queen Elizabeth I in Old Age, Allegorical Painting.c.1610
Skull with Candle, Gerhard Richter, 1983.
Dance of Death, Bernt Notke 1463-66.
Medieval painting of Death playing chess, Täby Church, Sweden.
​Face Lift, Laurie Lipton, 2005
Calavera Huertista, J G Posada, c. 1910
Horse Drawn Carriage, (Day of the Dead, papercut), Mexico, 20th Century
Allegory of Death, Circle of Juan de Valdés Leal, 17th century
Monastery Graveyard in the Snow, Caspar David Friedrich, c. 1817
Skull, Otto Dix, 1924
Ophelia, Sir John Everett Millais, 1851-2