Death in Poetry

Like so many of the poems I’m featuring this April, I was introduced to Yusef Komunyakaa’s “We Never Know” in a class I took (this one on war literature) and instantly fell in love. This poem was not beautiful because of the sound, but because of the beautiful imagery and the strong emotion it invokes. I was particularly struck by the juxtaposition of love imagery (dancing, kissing) and death.

You can read it here: We Never Know, as well as listen to it. Oh, and if you think I have strayed from my usual topic of sound in poetry, check out Komunyakaa’s blues poetry. If his war poetry made my heart swell, his blues poetry made it explode.

Today’s poem sticks with the theme of death. On April 3, Maureen Thorson challenged us to write a Sea Shanty. I don’t know if this really counts as a shanty, but it’s about superstitious sailors and I have the tendency to sing it to the tune of Paul and Storm’s The Captain’s Wife’s Lament, and why not? They’re awesome. Anyway, “The Underwater Graveyard” is based on the Battle of Reliance during the war between the mermaids of Brek and Linakra in 200 AM. Most people are not aware that there are actually two versions of this song. Both talk about the battle through a frame story of a ship passing through the same area several centuries later, but use different versions of the legend of sprinticles–souls which were not allowed to pass to the land of the dead. This is the second, and better known of the two, popularized by everyone from Grid Macey to Tiamet. It’s common that one singer person’s sings the captain’s lines, and the rest of the crowd joins in the last two lines of the chorus, representing the sailors. I only include the first two verses and the chorus because that’s about all I can write in a day it’s really long:

‘Twas calm one summer’s evening
sailing somewhere north of Brek,
when the first mate said, “let’s go around,
there’s sure to be a wreck.

“That’s the underwater graveyard,
where many mermaids died.
We should not provoke their restless souls.”
But still the captain cried,

“Row o’er the mermaids’ bones, me lads,
row o’er the mermaids’ bones.”
“But the spriticles will rise
and take us down to Davy Jones.”


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