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Death Beds

by Billy Collins

The ancients were talkative on theirs,
so many agencies needed to be addressed:
the gods of departure who controlled
the seven portals of the world,
the ferrymen leaning on their smooth oars.
the eternal pilots, immortal conductors,
and that was just the transportation.

Japanese monks would motion for a tablet,
sometimes, an inkwell and a brush
so they could leave behind the dark,
wet strokes of a short poem-
a drop of rain on a yellow leaf.
One described the nigh clouds
and the moon making its million-mile journey.

Medieval Christians who could read
could read a treatise on the subject:
De Arte Moriendi, On the Art of Dying,
pages of instruction on what to do in bed,
how to set the heart right
how to point the soul upward
and listen to the prayer of one’s own breathing.

Some pale Victorians in their tubercular
throes would ask for a looking glass
so they could behold the seraphic glow
the dry fever brought to their faces.
A few even had a photographer summoned
to open his tripod in the sickroom
and disappear under the heavy black cloth
as the subject, more or less, was doing the same.

Then there were the wits,
using their last breath to exhale a line,
a devastating capper, as if the world
were simply a large gallery buzzing with people,
and now it was time to throw on a long scarf
and make the exit, leaving
it to someone else to close the door.

Some lie on their backs for months,
students of the ceiling.
others roll over once and are gone.
Some bellow for a priest
and make the one confession no one doubts.
And you, and I, too, may lie on ours,
the vigilant family in a semicircle,
or the night nurse holding our hand
in the dark, or alone.
there will be no ink, mirror, or Latin book,
though the wallpaper may be tasteless
and you may feel yourself entering a myth.

i would hope for a window,
the usual frame of reference,
a clear sky, or thin high clouds,
and abundance of sun, a cool pillow.
And I would expect just at the end
a moment of pure awareness
when i could feel the solitary pea under the mattress
and pick out the dot of a hawk lost in the blue.