The art of the obituary is well established but mostly fading in these days of newspaper cost cutting. I haven’t read any of the famed London Times obits in years, as they are protected behind a stern paywall. Obituaries in Canada’s Globe and Mail are now just Deaths, with the occasional soppy family memoir appearing under the heading Lives Lived, and all this went behind a paywall in mid-October 2012, not much to be missed.
I get my bittersweet pleasure of lives lived in at least an interesting fashion from The Economist magazine. In the varying menu of politicians, business magnates, writers and rogues who have passed on, as often as not the deceased is as obscure as any recent winner of a Nobel prize. Economist entries this past autumn included Eric Hobsbawm, “the last interesting Marxist”; Edwin P. Wilson, “gunrunner and manager of CIA front companies”; and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church.
My current favourite, published on October 13, was the note on Nguyen Chi Thien, a Vietnamese poet who died in Little Saigon in Orange County, California, on October 2, at the age of seventy-three. Back in July 1979 he ran through the gate of the British embassy in Hanoi with four hundred poems stuffed under his shirt. He left them behind and was arrested outside the embassy. Then in 1985 his collection Flowers of Hell won the International Poetry Award.
He remained in various prisons through 1995, allowed no pen, paper or books. So he memorized each one of his hundreds of poems, “carefully revised it for several days, and mentally filed it away. If it didn’t work, he mentally deleted it… Walking out to till the fields with his fellow prisoners, many of them poets too, he would recite his poems to them and they would respond with theirs. Some of them counted the beats on their fingers to remember. He never did; memory alone served him.”
The image remains in my mind: a field full of poets, reciting their work as they pass one another, pulling verse from memory.
They sank me into the ocean
Wishing me to remain in the depths.
I became a deep sea diver
And came up covered with