Posted by: John Looker | 17 June, 2011




“I have seen some lovely deaths” she said –
white haired, straight backed, speaking years ago –
setting her words deep in the young man’s head.

Hard to suppress a smile and yet, well bred,
he listened, letting the conversation flow:
“I have seen some lovely deaths” she said.

Thoughts such as these sink like a fisherman’s lead
straight to the foot of a lake. She wasn’t to know
she was setting her words deep in the young man’s head.

Getting along in life, his mind just sped
away absorbed – but there, pushed down below,
was hiding a seed, an ember, from things she’d said.

Now, when the best and oldest friends are dead,
that day returns, the conversation glows,
her words resurface in this unbowed head.

Master of a body beyond repair and slow,
he smiles recalling the lady long ago
setting her words deep in the young man’s head:
“I have seen some lovely deaths” she said.


©John Looker 2011

The illustration comes from artwork at Han Stoney’s blog: 


  1. Glorious, Mr. Stevens.


  2. great stuff John. e-mail me at bassline13f@yahoo, I want to ask you something about this one


  3. Here’s a beautiful poem.


  4. This one is really wonderful, and sort of a villanelle? Old age and the memories that comes with it. Much better stuff than the youngsters can think off !


  5. You’re very kind everyone. I really wasn’t sure how this one would be received.
    Yes, it is essentially a villanelle, Ina, which I thought might be a suitable form and mood for the subject, but I’m not sure that the very strict rhyme scheme and heavy repetition are in keeping with most modern tastes. I suppressed some of the repetition – partly for relief and partly to match the way the memory of her words is said to have disappeared for some years.


  6. I have the greatest admiration John for anyone who can make the villanelle form work as well as this one does.
    I love too that you have had the confidence to take liberties with the format – a bit like Elizabeh Bishop does in her poem ‘One Art’ – one of my very favourite villanelles

    You have my respect


    • Thanks a lot David. I know the Elizabeth Bishop poem you mean: it’s terrific isn’t it? She goes from lighthearted to heartbreaking in just 19 lines.


  7. Yes, ‘One Art’ comes to mind, as does Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do not go gently…’ The villanelle is an odd duck indeed, but it has yielded some mighty—and opposing—poems. I wonder at the repetition, at its anti-narrative effect, at its seeming insistence, at its sense of command. Thomas’s poem is most insistent, yet commands the impossible, Elizabeth Bishop’s command sounds easy—lose something every day—until the poem enfolds…
    Does ‘Death and the Lady’ insist, command? There’s a gentle tug-of-war here between the line endings and the Lady’s message: said, head, bred, said, lead, head, sped, said, dead, head, head, said. Pretty insistent—but to what end? And ‘I have seen some lovely deaths’ repeated three times—and not by the Lady, but by the narrator of the poem, by the ‘master of a body beyond repair and slow’. Death is not lovely. It’s not ugly. It can happen quickly, slowly. The subject of that sentence is ‘I’, not death, but its message is ‘lovely’—not beautiful, not happy, not grand—lovely. A quick trip to the dictionary yields: beautiful and pleasing, delightful, caring, attracting love. Attracting love? Death? As it happens, John, my mother is at the very end of her life. She will be dead in a matter of hours, days (weeks? Unlikely.) My gentle sisters read scripture to her—though she is only conscious to suffer pain. These words—these poems—what do they do?
    So, what to make of the clever word play—dead, head, head, said—and the explicit message? Does it help us? Help us hide? Help us hide and therefore help us? Take us for a walk in the dark? Lovers holding hands?
    Let me quote Gloucester from Lear:
    ‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.
    Let me quote Samuel Beckett:
    In the depths of the sea it had crept into the cruel pot. For hours, in the midst of its enemies, it had breathed secretly. It had survived the Frenchwoman’s cat and his witless clutch. Now it was going alive into scalding water. It had to. Take into the air my quiet breath.
    Belacqua looked at the old parchment of her face, grey in the dim kitchen.
    “You make a fuss” she said angrily “and upset me and then lash into it for your dinner.”
    She lifted the lobster clear of the table. It had about thirty seconds to live.
    Well, thought Belacqua, it’s a quick death, God help us all.
    It is not.
    Congratulations, John. It’s a lovely poem.


  8. Outstanding, John – a really fine piece of work. It’s so easy for villanelles to become forced and contrived, but you’ve got this one under perfect control and really made the form work for you. As David said, you have my respect. Great stuff.


  9. I think this might be a favourite of mine, of yours. Absolutely enchanting rhyme which rolls it along like a fable and a story thought that will last. Wonderful.


  10. Jim, Nick, Kiersty – I’ve been away a week without internet, so please excuse this tardy response, and thank you for your kind remarks. I wasn’t sure if I’d judged the tone of this one properly, or handled the form well enough.
    Samuel Beckett’s lobster is a useful corrective, Jim. Maybe I should try to write about a different sort of death, for balance. This poem recalls a remark exactly as it was made to me by an elderly lady when I was young, but that’s not to say that we can necessarily be confident that a death has met this description (and do we have the right to describe someone else’s death in this way?). But I think it is reasonable to suppose that some deaths do and that we may hope for it for those we love and for ourselves.


  11. I like this poem. I’m glad you found my blog so I could visit yours.


  12. My favorite of the several poems I’ve read here. I particularly enjoyed the line: Master of a body beyond repair and slow

    I can already imagine cribbing it in my mind, if not aloud.

    It’s yours by copyright. But we may take it from you in our daily doings, and pay you in flattery.


    • Really, there is no greater reward than being told that someone might remember some of my lines or read them again. Thank you very much.


  13. A villanelle! You are a master poet if there ever was one. If I were a critic I would break out in hives and lift my eyes to the skies and declare that, this is a poet with the old craft, the craft that allowed words to take on life and march in rhythm and rhyme like ships growing old or a profusion of flowers first blooming red in a yellow meadow.


  14. I’ve come to your words via belfastdavid. Death is a constant, and here the lyrical, lilting quality of your words take the sting from death. For me there is an acceptance of the inevitability of death in this poem, something I value. And then there is the quality of your craft.


  15. Late last night a friend called to tell me her mother had just died. My friend kept repeating how it was “a beautiful death,” and immediately this poem came to mind. Funny how poems do that.


    • Thank you for telling me that, Cynthia. I’m pleased.


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