Reading, Writing, and Teaching the Dead
by Matthew Burns
At the small rural school where I’ve been teaching for almost two years, I’ve apparently managed to become known within student circles (or so I’ve heard) as “the depressing professor.” That’s balanced a little by the “really helpful” and “funny” comments, sure, but these latter descriptors are intentional; I actively work to be those things. What I mean to say is I don’t try to bum you out, students!
But I know where that perception comes from. In class we read a lot of different texts; some are funny, others poignant, and a few, I suppose, are a little…heavy. I’ll admit that telling a class of students in the first weeks of an Environmental Lit course, “Sorry to remind you, but we’re all going to die” might be a little shocking. (Those laughs it elicits are more nervous than anything.) And yes, when we’re discussing Wendell Berry’s “A Native Hill” and we get to the end where he tells us
I apprehend in it the dark proposal of the ground. Under the fallen leaf my breastbone burns with imminent decay…. My body begins its long shudder into humus. I feel my substance escape me, carried into the mold by beetles and worms…. I sink under the leaves
some students get a little panicky. Maybe it’s the first realization or just a reminder of something they’ve worked hard at forgetting, but there it is. And when I press them to think deeply about this passage, there are as many averted eyes as there are searching ones. But it’s something at the heart of what we’re going to be discussing—in one way or another—for the rest of the semester. That is, to paraphrase Berry: We are less than we thought; but more importantly: We should rejoice in that knowledge.
Even more, I think that knowledge hits them like it hits anyone. It’s recognition of some order that is far, far beyond our meager comprehension (Berry talks about this as well, but, in class, it’s just too much to handle). Whatever name we give it—Circle of Life, Life Processes, Nature, God, and on and on—we are both at the mercy of and beholden to it. That’s it and there it is. It’s that simple—frighteningly simple.
Since moving to a rural area and driving farm roads daily, I’ve seen more dead animals than I could’ve imagined ever seeing. Not necessarily big ones—a mule deer here and there, once a coyote—but more like the hundred dozen small ones—feral cats, farm dogs, birds, rodents—that, in the morning, begin as distinct corpses and, on my return trip, are little more than stain or smear. It was strange at first, then depressing. New ones appeared every day. Every day they rotted and stunk and spread until they were just another shade of gray on the asphalt. Somewhere along the line I grew numb and even morbidly curious (Ooh! What was that?!). It wasn’t until I hit one myself that I began seeing the death as something else. It was a snake and I wrote about it:
To the Snake I Ran Over this Morning
After the little drum solo that was my tires
flattening and then flattening again
your languid morning body,
the hum of road appeared.
It was as if there was a knock
and someone opened a door: there, all around,
was the sound of tires and road touching
and letting go and touching again, fast as lovers
in a backseat expecting to be caught,
to move me toward a parking lot,
the way tires must.
Then horses in the field I went past rubbed
head-to-flank and goats in the one behind
laid in their patches of grass and nibbled
out of boredom or hunger. The corn grew dry
and rattled in the rising wind that said
there was to be rain later.
And there was rain later and it fell
because what else does it know to do
beyond that? And when, on the way home,
I passed what was left of your body—
a shadow under a pair of magpies pecking
the wet road—it was just beginning to wash away
into the culvert that is to be washed into,
the way everything out there is out there
to do one thing and do it beautifully.
The road, the door, the horse, and all that—
that’s what they do, the same way
I am telling myself this as I roll toward home
through the early night coming on
too fast to judge, speeding toward
my tired and unsuspecting head.
That’s just how it happened. Whatever’s coming is coming without any concern for us. It’s not that it’s frightening—it shouldn’t be. It’s that the whole thing is benign and hits everything the same. It doesn’t care. That’s it. I think what gets my students—what gets me that “depressing” moniker—is the idea that there is some kind of “lessening” going on in this whole thing—that if we’re not important, then our “imminent decay” somehow loses weight and meaning. But that’s not the case. We know this. We talk about it and discuss the other side of the equation and what that could mean.
It takes a little while to get there, but eventually we do and just yesterday a student said it. She wants to work with Berry for her final paper and starts off by saying, “It’s not that we are any less; it’s just that everything else is more.” And she smiled at that.
Matthew Burns is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Heritage University in Washington. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Binghamton University where he was co-editor of Harpur Palate. He was the winner of the 2010 James Hearst Poetry Prize from North American Review and his poems and essays have appeared in Folk Art, Ragazine, Cold Mountain Review, The Georgetown Review, Paddlefish, Upstreet, Spoon River Poetry Review, Jelly Bucket, Memoir (and), Paterson Literary Review,Quiddity and others.
Rad snake image above is from here.