poetry

there will always be new bodies

One to Watch, And One to Pray

By Camille T. Dungy

We passed the baby over the bed, and later we passed tissue,
and her Bible with its onion skin pages, its highlighted lessons
and dog-eared parables she kept handy with bookmarks
whose tassels hung and swayed as her hair
might have done when she was very sweet and very young,
and when we had finished what reading we would read,
we stopped a little while to register the pleasant song
the woman on the stereo was singing, and then the baby
cried for milk, and so we passed her back across the bed,
which is when someone asked if there was any more water
and we passed the water over her lips with the swab the nurses gave us
just for this, a square pink bubblegum lollipop-looking deal
like the treats she used to give us when we were very sweet
and very young, and someone came with roses,
and though we smelled the flowers because we hoped for something better
than the smell that lingered all around us, hothouse flowers
look alive long after their lively smells have faded, so when someone came in
with cards, we passed the cards and flowers over the bed and stood them up
with the other cards and flowers on the little stand of white plastic and chrome
that passed for a bedside table in that place, and when a friend came in
who hadn’t met the baby, we passed the baby over the bed
and the friend said, she’s so sweet, and when a cousin came
who knew things few of us knew, we listened to stories
from when both of them were very young, and when someone cried
we passed the tissue over the bed, and when someone said, she’s so small now,
we remembered the pink square bubblegum lollipop swab,
and when the nurse said, you can tell by how she breathes,
someone got the Bible from the little chrome and plastic stand,
and when someone said, it’s okay to leave, we didn’t want to
do a thing, and though several days later someone told me
people somewhere in West Africa pass a baby over the bed
of a dying person to say there will always be new bodies
to celebrate and mourn, that night we only knew the baby needed a change
and someone had to take her, and so we passed the baby
over the bed and decided who would stay to watch her go.

I read this poem “One to Watch, And One to Pray” by Camille T. Dungy in VQR a couple of years ago. It touched me deeply at the time, so much so that I remember sharing it via social media, and I read and reflected upon its music each day for at least a week. Last week, Kima Jones shared this poem on Twitter, and in revisiting it now, a little over four months after my grandfather’s death, I can hardly make it to the end of the poem with dry eyes.

In Dungy’s poem, it is easy for the baby and the woman dying to become conflated because of the use of the “she” pronoun, but this swirl of confusion the reader experiences is necessary as I feel it accurately represents the experience of the speaker and the other person present with her as evidenced by the “we” pronoun employed throughout the poem. This conflation also reinforces the part in the poem when someone informs the speaker of the West African ritual and how it signifies “there will always be new bodies / to celebrate and mourn.” Death as celebration, death as mourning, and death as an affirmation that life will go on–this poem so poignantly portrays all this with its ebb and flow of 35 (often enjambed) lines and its lone period, aptly placed at the end of the poem, signifying the end of this person’s life on earth.

Subtle repetition directs the movement of this poem to its inevitable conclusion. The phrases the speaker repeats often include things in terms of pairs–“very sweet and very young,” “cards and flowers,” and “little chrome and plastic stand,”–further reinforcing the sanctity of relationship, but also creating a balance, yin and yang if you will: you and me, we and her, she and baby, us and them, life and death. With repetition comes familiarity, and the repetition of “she,” “we,” and “we passed the baby over the bed” creates a dual sense of consolation in this poem: a consolation the speaker seeks (and seems to experience) as she watches her loved one die, and an implied consolation for the reader who is now sharing this experience. The speaker is consoling the reader, but by the end of the poem the speaker also reminds the reader that death and life are companions. And this is where I’m just stunned by the compassion this poem evokes as well as the community this poem shares and creates. It overwhelms me. And I’m reminded of an NPR piece on Jane Hirshfield I recently read in which she says, “Compassion, in a way, is one of the most important things poems do for me, and I trust do for other people. They allow us to feel how shared our fates are.”

“One to Watch, and One to Pray” is a beautifully rendered poem. I’m grateful for it. I’m especially grateful to Camille Dungy for her inclusion of the “pink square bubblegum lollipop swab” in this poem. It’s a heavy image in what it often signifies, yet when you hold one of these swabs in your hand, you can’t help but be astonished by its lightness. What a complicated balance to capture and maintain. What a choice image for this poem.

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3 thoughts on “there will always be new bodies

  1. I can see why it’s hard for you to read this poem without crying. I’ve lost both my parents and so has my husband; that little pink swab is just an astonishing image. I’m going to have to wait a little bit before I read anything else this morning. Thank you so much for sharing this.

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