Recently, I participated in a group public reading of poetry at Richmond Public Library in Richmond, Virginia: Memento Mori: 26 poets responding to mortality, impermanence and grief, curated by Leslie Shiel and Lynda Fleet Perry. This was held in “conversation with two other area events: Richmond’s 1708 Gallery’s satellite exhibition, Memento Mori, curated by Michael Pierce, currently at Linden Row Inn through December 17; and the Chrysalis Institute’s fall program theme, Living Fully, Dying Mindfully.”
Each poem was a response to the theme, Memento Mori which, translated from Latin, means: “remember that you have to die,” and is an ancient practice of meditating on death and impermanence, grief, and the vanity of earthly possessions and pursuits. The practice seeks to encourage people to think about living a good life, appreciating and making the most of their days on earth. Mortality has always been a theme of artistic expression. Even up until the 20th century, symbols such as “skulls, clocks, guttering candles, fruit and vegetables portrayed the passing of time, mortality and impermanence.” Many people kept these symbols in their homes and offices and as reminders to celebrate their lives and not to take them for granted. The reading format was based on the style of a well-received two hour express poetry reading at the Dodge Poetry Festival now held biennially in Newark, New Jersey.
As the event opened, curator Leslie Shiel asked for a moment of silence, and silence was maintained between each poet’s offering. After a pause between individual readings, a new voice rose out of the hush to read the next poem, and the next. Held together by the same underlying thread, each poem was uniquely crafted in the individual poet’s style and choices. All of the poems had been written before the event was conceived.
As the reading progressed, voice after voice was added to the collection, and the audience received a living anthology of poetry. The poets became connected to each other and their listeners on multiple levels of common experience and word.
You can view the entire event here (25 video playlist) or visit Virginia Poetry Online’s YouTube channel and find the same playlist there.
Following are poems read at the event by curators Leslie Shiel and Lynda Fleet Perry.
by Leslie Shiel
After sprinkling water
on the closed casket,
the priest calls my father
our brother, and puts his hand
so tenderly there that I see
my broken father differently—
acknowledged, called into being.
And the stain on my one fine shirt?
No one can see because
my long gray hair covers it.
Leslie Shiel teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. She is the author of two chapbooks, Self-Portrait as a New Name and Braided, both published by Finishing Line Press.
by Lynda Fleet Perry
Bone clouds lit by whiteness, silver’s
metallic glint, crossing over. Powder
now, my father—gilding jonquils abloom
at his family’s old place; shelved in a mausoleum
over rapids where the one-legged heron
perches on granite; stashed in a blue heart-
shaped box, lidded, with the lock of his hair
and ivory-colored shards I gathered the day
we scattered the dust of his molecules, flickering
now in the black birth-waters he learned to fish,
and teach me, where hollow thrums
of bullfrogs echo, the reedy trill of red-wings—
Swamped in the pond’s dank vapors, I open
the heart box, breathe his acrid, deathbed scent.
I close it, and one hair wires out—silver, wild, insistent.
Lynda Fleet Perry is the author of a chapbook, At Winter Light Farm (2011). Her poems and essays appear in qarrtsiluni, defunct, Blackbird, and elsewhere. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, and works as an independent writer for nonprofits.
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