The Last Book

By

This is a meditation about two books.

In June of this year, McSweeney’s published Still Life, the third and final collection of poetry written by my spouse, Jay Hopler, who died of metastatic prostate cancer one week after its publication. Just a few days earlier, in May of 2022, Persea Books published Fatal, my fourth book of poems. The two books were written roughly over the same period, and in response to the same circumstance: Jay’s terminal diagnosis. My beloved and I both knew that Still Life would be his last book, his last chance to put impressions into language and to fuse language to structure. And we both knew that Fatal is unlikely to be my last publication, provided that the actuaries and geneticists are right about me. As one might imagine, the specter of mortality haunts both these books. Still Life explicitly engages the question of what will be left behind after the end of a life, and Jay reflects unflinchingly on his remains—his body, which he imagines as a “sack / of ash” (“the canonization,” 21-22), his memories, what marker will memorialize his passing: “marble slate granite what’s the difference / cross two sticks & lash them w/ a bit of twine” (“markers,” 1-2). My book worries primarily about loss, about what cannot be kept, about what does not remain.

         

But these are not the two books I’ve been reflecting on in recent weeks.

Instead, I’ve been thinking about the one book that the poet writes in the now and the different book which is the same book, the one that an unimaginable futurity might read.

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Even before, but pronouncedly after, Jay’s diagnosis, he and I spoke often about what it means to write a last book, to produce a poetic artifact that endures beyond the self. What poetry can offer in the way of immortality. And what it can’t.

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The idea of poetic immortality is not an original one. In 23 BCE, Horace boldly declared his own poetic endurance in Ode 3.30:

Exegi monumentum aere perennius
regalique situ pyramidum altius,
quod non imber edaxnon aquilo impotens
possit diruere aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.

[I have made a monument outwearing bronze,
outreaching the pyramids’ kingly heaps
which neither rain can corrode nor tempest batter,
nor the numberless train of years, nor flight of time. (1-5, my translation)]

 

William Shakespeare famously takes up the theme in his Sonnet 55. But here, instead of vaunting the endurance of his own voice, he promises his beloved a kind of immortality—though, of course, it is precisely through the endurance of the sonnet that the beloved’s immortality is achieved.

Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time. (1-4)

The long tradition of lyric poetry is filled with such assertions, bespeaking a conventional faith in the capacity of a poem to preserve something of us beyond our lived time, to conserve some version of a self that might be reanimated by the act of reading, our fragile bodies re-membered in the mouths and limbs of other bodies, other lives. But as someone who has been poring over Jay’s words—in books, in audio and video recordings of his readings online, in my own poems which are themselves records of my life with him—I can assure you that whatever the poems monument up for the duration, it’s an impoverishment, a watery substitute for the refractory richness of a human person. Poetic immortality, as it turns out, is no satisfying immortality—at least, not for those of us left knocking around in the mortal.

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The poet writing a book is not only writing a book, but also living a life. The poet goes to the supermarket for peanut butter. The poet cleans the toilet. The poet responds to emails. Indeed, the poet spends the lion’s share of time not writing poems. And the poems, inevitably, sometimes invisibly, show the traces of all this not-poeming. This observation is not meant to recuperate the poet from our sophisticated postmodern confidence that the poem is distinct from autobiography, but rather to acknowledge that autobiography puts its grubby fingerprints all over the poems one writes. For the writer, the touchpoints remain vivid—I was driving on this freeway when that line occurred to me, or I stubbed my toe on the way to look that word up in the dictionary.

When Jay was writing Still Life, he was surrounded by the clutter of his own dying—radiation vaults and chemo drips, pills and bongs—but he was also living a life. Grading student work, gardening, hiking, cooking dinner, playing board games with the kids. For Jay, as for his family, his poems are spangled with secret shout-outs and private play, recognizable signals of the vibrant days we were passing together—and gloriously together, thanks to a global pandemic.

I don’t know how many of these traces of mundane life are legible to the general reader, though I suspect the number is small. They show up as details that don’t trumpet their significance, mostly because they’re not significant—not in the referential sense. They don’t signify something widely apprehensible. These slight verbal gestures—the invented name for a park, the neighbor kid’s favorite outfit—are part of the book Jay was writing, the one that depends on a singular human mind, a human life; they belong not to the vast potential field of readers extending onward into the future, but to our private household. Or, to put it in other words: They belong to the process, not the product.

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The process, in which lived experience inheres, is not ultimately what poetry preserves, though the existence of a poem implies its process as a backformation. I think that a book in the world instead offers readers a product—a transformative, even transcendent product, but one whose endurance is predicated on the erasure of the process, which must be—must continue to be—a readerly unknown. The book that a poet writes is not, and cannot be, the book that a reader picks up. The book in process is always a book of the living. The published book can only be a book of the dead.

           

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Some months ago, The Rumpus posed this question to our household: What is it like to write a book knowing that it is the last book? Jay did not live long enough to answer. But having spent nearly three decades in intimate conversation with him as a spouse and literary collaborator, I feel fairly comfortable speaking in concert with him now. My answer—our answer—is that writing the last book requires keeping focus on the living that makes poetry meaningful. Writing the last book demands understanding that, upon publication, the book leaves your hands and passes into a world of readers who turn over pages and endeavor to make what meaning they will from the poems without any further guidance from the poet, that the words themselves will have to suffice, will have to be what endures of any initiatory impulse, that the language of the text will take on a life of its own in the interpretations of strangers. The book departs into an immortality that has nothing to do with the poet, nothing to do with Horace or Shakespeare or Shakespeare’s beloved or Jay Hopler or Jay Hopler’s beloved. The book that endures is not the book written, sparking with memory and particularity. The book that outwears bronze, the immortal book, is indifferent to the life that gave rise to it—independent, and therefore durable.

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In that light, it becomes clear: Every book is the last book.

 

 

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Kimberly Johnson is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently FATAL (Persea Books, 2022), as well as translations of Virgil and Hesiod. With her late spouse, Jay Hopler, she edited Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry (Yale Univeristy Press, 2013). Recipient of grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim foundation, the NEA, and others, she lives in Utah. More from this author →