During Jim’s final December, just after we learned his illness was terminal, Vijay Seshadri published a wonder of a poem called Bright Copper Kettles:
Questioned about the poem, Seshadri said: “No assertion or implication in the poem should be construed as applying to anything outside the dramatic development of the poem itself. But I’ve never been averse to the idea that it’s just as philosophically presumptuous, as much a leap of faith, to insist that the end of the body is the end of the self as it is to insist the opposite. It’s better for poetry, and for the imagination generally, to be neutral about those issues.”
He made an observation that echoed my contemporaneous, deep misgivings about queries to observant atheists like Christopher Hitchins: “On the other hand, I’ve noticed blog accounts recently of people asking famous contemporary atheists who have just been given a terminal diagnosis, or are clearly approaching the grave, whether they now believe in God. That seems to me to be a sign of how degraded our discourse has become—not only insulting to the person, and to serious thought, but to the dignity of death.”
Copper kettles segue in my mind from mourning to moonshine.
Bob Dylan wrote of quite a different kind of copper kettle (and a coil other than this mortal one)–the kind used to make moonshine under the stars:
“Get you a copper kettle
And get you a copper coil
Cover with new cut corn mash
And never more you’ll toil
You just lay there by the juniper
While the moon is high
And watch them jugs a-fillin
In the pale moonlight”
For our first wedding anniversary, I gave Jim a copper pot that sits in a 207-year-old fireplace, flanked by golden brass sun sconces which Jim gave me. A pale green glass vase within the copper pot held wildflowers from the floral arrangement that graced the lectern at his Closing Ceremonies.
I see myself seeing Jim—particularly as he inhabits my dreams–in Sashadri’s nuanced poem.
I see Jim himself in Dylan’s lyrics–the part of him that saw no harm in occasionally imbibing in an adult beverage after a very long work day, looking at me looking up at him (slightly disapprovingly, I confess, as I am an irrational absolutist about not drinking in front of underage children) as he reached for a glass on a shelf I could not come close to, even on tiptoe.
Each time he would dip the pinky of his right hand to stir tonic with some quantity of gin, ice cubes clattering against the sides of the tall cobalt drinking glasses which were given to us as a wedding present.
His wild side was not so very wild, but I could see him trying out an experimental batch of moonshine, just as many years ago he mightily labored to produce his own maple syrup and home-brewed beer.
Jim of course would have known from his more wholesome Scouting experiences exactly what wood to use when brewing moonshine . . . perhaps down on copperline.
“Copper head, copper beech
Copper kettles sitting side by each
Copper coil, cup o’georgia peach
Down on copperline
Half a mile down to Morgan Creek
Leaning heavy on the end of the week
Hercules and a hog-nosed snake
Down on copperline
We were down on copperline. . . .
I tried to go back, as if I could
All spec house and plywood
Tore up and tore up good
Down on copperline
It doesn’t come as a surprise to me
Will never touch my memory
Well I’m looking up and rising free
Down on over copperline . . . .”
8 thoughts on “Bright Copper Kettles: Mourning to Moonshine”
This poem is stunningly beautiful. I love the mercurial depth as the author weaves in and out of the waves and foam of the ocean. I have been here before and most assuredly will be again. I lost my soul mate in the summer of 1995 to a senseless suicide. Dark, dark place…..so dark that he felt he had to end his life. Impossible to comprehend. Vijay Seshadri heals us as we identify.
Last July 2011, I was privileged to sit with the Left Rev. Gene McD only 8 hours before he passed and he ‘let’ me see and feel the surreal and cerebral, the in and out, the clarity and the fading of the dying process. He was not in pain. He smiled with those full lips and strong teeth made from Ivory and shapes that I had memorized over the 30 years we had created music and worked together and enjoyed a rare friendship when I asked, “What is it like out there?”; and a low soft laugh was audible only to me in the room where he was in his own bed, no drugs, lucid and loving the wonderment of it all. His spirit had outgrown his feeble body. The liver was no longer functioning; skin yellow and his tall and broad form emaciated. Bittersweet. Real life. Real death.
Carri, you’re a poet with your words as well as your music. That is a beautiful thing to share with us. Love from all of us.
To be able to be with someone as they pass through this world to another, can be a wonderful gift. We shared with Jason as he left this earth, unafraid, comfortable, and at peace. To see the changes in him the months before he died was heartbreaking, but his strength and courage was and continues to be, an inspiration to us. He shared many things before he left us, leaving messages for his friends and his brother, telling us that he didn’t want the experience of his death to make us bitter or angry, that we should try to help each other, accept others for who they are, to not be afraid to make the most of our lives. One of his comments was that people ‘live on’ as long as there are memories of them, and I am confident that Jim, Gene McD and Jason will be in our hearts forever.
Stephanie, and Carri, you both have healing words of love….thank you for sharing your hearts. Blessings and peace to both of you
It is incredible that you can share these stories of such love and giving and assurance amidst such heartache. I am certain they stay with all of us.
I keep coming back to your comments. It is so important to be able to spend those last days and hours with the person you love, and in the setting that person wants. The hardest thing I ever have written about was the miraculous final days–the bitter and the sweet, as Carri put it, and it seemed important to be at Jim’s service to tell everyone the essence of those days. Given the diagnosis Jim had been handed, these last days were exactly as he wanted them, and very much worth fighting for: to be at home, with no machines, never, ever alone or without the touch of someone he loved. To be able to be home and laugh and joke and speak meaningfully to people without pain and without fear was the miracle, and we owe that to our children, friends and family.