Memento Mori (poem – video)

If all you do with this post is spend 4:15 minutes watching this clip, that is enough.  But there is a bit of (con)text below…


Memento Mori is a Latin term. It has multiple translations, all approaching a concept not easily rendered. If you consult the Oracle of Wikipedia, they say

“Remember that you must die.”

I first encountered the term on Star Island, sometime in the mid-oughts (2006?), while listening to a sermon by the Rev. Victoria Safford at the International Affairs Conference. She introduced the concept of spiritual intelligence that Rev. Kendyl Gibbons was developing. At that time, the definition was

the constant awareness of death; acceptance of mortality and dedication to life regardless”

It’s my understanding that this is a work in process, as there has been movement from calling this “spiritual intelligence” to “spiritual maturity.” So, if you ask the Rev. Kent Hemmen Saleska, who preached on this topic in 2012, memento mori is not all that different, but enough to merit a mention:

“practicing consistent awareness of inevitable death of self and all beings, while not seeking escape from eventual mortality.”

This wording may well be Kendyl’s – I can’t tell from the document if it’s hers or Kent’s. Praise to them both.

I don’t have much refinement to add to the definition. I do hope that my poem – some call it my signature poem – adds to texture, particularly of an erotic nature, of our engagement with this awareness of our human condition.

Memento Mori by Karen G. Johnston (cc)

We all wonder whether

tonight’s scalpel will ease the fluid

building on his brain

or be metaphorically dull,

offering neither relief nor reprieve

for this man laying dying.

Well, not dying today —

(pray not today) —

but dying more quickly

or at least more evidently

than the rest of us in the room.

This formidable man, formerly with silver mane of hair;

This man of four successive wives,

the last fiercely attending,

sleeping beside him each night in hospital room;

This man whose days & nights once teemed with jazz,

international travel, political organizing, philosophical meandering

& (I’m guessing) the company of smart, sexy women.

His mind now foggy, his memory a blur,

I offer to read poetry aloud.

Pick one, I say, not handing him the book of

pastoral contemplation I brought

(it turns out those pages are full of death,

the possibility so palpable in the room

I don’t want to lend my tongue to that theme,

not for a man doggedly clinging to life.)

Instead, I hand him the only other book of poems

in the room: his dog-eared copy of Sharon Olds.

He lingers as he chooses: I am not sure if

he is dazed or intent.

He hands back the book: an exhausting effort,

pointing to a poem entitled “Sex without Love.”

This man, thirty years my senior, is flirting

from the bed that cannot cure his cancer!

Flirting? Perhaps.

But more likely: declaring life, not death.

His selection double-dog dares me & I accept.

I want him to believe that I am worldly & brazen

& can read life into his failing body.

Squirming in the chair beside him,

I can’t quite believe I am reading an erotic poem

to a dying man who is neither my husband nor my lover.

I’m wondering how it is I got here,

on this day & in this way

& if his wife hadn’t just stepped out of the room,

wouldn’t she wonder the same thing, too?

Yet this may be

(I pray it is not)

this may be the last thing

I do for this friend.

Who can deny a dying man his last wish?

Even if it turns out to be one of a thousand last wishes,

or just the one of one?

Like him, I refuse to take the easy way out.

Blushing, I read the poem first to myself, then to him.

Involuntarily grimacing, I am not offended,

but embarrassed and slightly titillated.

I do not want to stumble over the vivid, explicit parts –

it’s so sensual, so visceral.

It is a good poem.

I cannot look him in the eye

but neither to do I stop

until the poem comes to its end

& his sigh praises me.

Memento_Mori_by_GodfridA note: this poem, as the Youtube description says, was written in honor of my friend, the late John Brentlinger.  Can you tell that he lived a full life?  There are too many things to be said of this man and his life.  I will say that he wrote the book, The Best of What We Are: Reflections on the Nicaraguan Revolution and founded the Solentiname, Nicaragua Friendship Group of Western Massachusetts.  He was an important presence at the Unitarian Society of Northampton & Florence when I was first standing-under my call to ministry.  His was the first memorial service I helped to conduct. We were friends.

Unitarian Universalists have a long history of courage in tackling issues around human sexuality—from campaigning for human rights, to pioneering innovative work in the Our Whole Lives sexuality curriculum… join #UUs this month for a discussion of sex–the challenging parts, the beautiful parts, the spiritual parts, and even the downright goofy parts. UU or not, everyone is welcome to join in the conversation this month at #sexUUality

3 thoughts on “Memento Mori (poem – video)”

    1. the energy from offering this poem live, with others, particularly with others who are actively and appreciatively receiving it, is amazing in a way this video can never approach. glad you were there.

  1. Pingback: Reading Life Into Failing Bodies: The Chaplaincy of Eros and Thanatos | irrevspeckay

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