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Death Rattle

On the tape recorder, the Tibetan monks
do not chant; their song seems wordless,
one syllable of endless
breath. Since my son was newborn,
he has heard their singing,
the way his father imitates them, male voices
rising, low-pitched, from their bowels,
and from the earth. The sound has calmed
him into sleep, like bees humming
in a lion's skull, making
a sweetness out of death.

He does not know that his grandfather is dead.
He falls asleep alone, stuttering
on his pacifier, learning to hum
himself to sleep, as he has learned
to weep real tears and to laugh
out loud. That sound is the pulsing
vena cava that lies next to the womb
or the drumming in a dying ear.
It takes forty-nine days to enter
another body, the process of death
as embryonic as the process of birth.
Our only accompaniment, our only instruments
are made of human bones.

Prairie Schooner, Vol. 69, No. 4 (Fall 1995), p. 38

Author Comment

Women’s bodies, men’s voices—this phrase could summarize much of contemporary politics which focus on when, how, and if women give birth. The process of pregnancy and giving birth is often discussed in terms that identify woman with the body and spiritual authority with male thought. The poem that was published as “Death Rattle” in Prairie Schooner eventually became the fifth poem in a sequence of poems titled “A Broken Crown of Sonnets for My Father’s Forehead.” I was caught between two events, my son’s birth in September 1993 and my father’s death the following February. For no apparent reason, though it did months later, seem a foreshadowing, I had been listening to recordings of Tibetan monks. Their chants seemed to emerge from the earth itself, a deep powerful masculine sound, and were accompanied by instruments sometimes fashioned from human bones, the thighbone, and the skull of an often-revered monk or teacher. So ‘death rattle’ was both a reference to the sound made just before death and this music with its rattles made of human bone. When my father died unexpectedly of a heart attack, I began reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is meant to be read aloud to one who is dying or who has died as a guide to the journey that the person will take after death. A journey where the beautiful deities are beautiful because they wear the faces of our own desire, and where the terrible deities are terrible because they wear the faces of our own fear, and where the traveler, the dead one, should hope to enter “the clear light of the Void,” beyond all the illusions of existence. Frequently the deceased person is reincarnated; a process that takes forty-nine days to be born if one is born as a human infant. So the book of the dead is also a book of life, a womb book, of being fetal in the cosmic womb. As a woman who had given birth to her third child, I felt the inexorable nature of the process that one must literally travel through the body; give one’s bones up to another. I felt it was as impossible to escape giving birth or being born as to escape having to die. I was also struck by the way in which children are shaped into being by the voices of their fathers, whether biological or spiritual, and how predominantly male authors have shaped how much of our thinking about birth in its spiritual dimensions. There was a way in which in this sequence I was thinking of fatherhood as a kind of mothering, inside the bones of the body, that a masculinity that identified with the body would weave a different kind of music. That, regardless, the body with which woman has often been negatively identified is our only source of music.