Much of Dan's poetry is concerned with death, a subject of endless interest and fascination for him, yet one that he approached without any sentimentality. In the last decade of his life, he was working sporadically on a sequence of poems called "Mortuary Airs," a title explained in the motto he had chosen for this informal collection: "In the years that are left to him, D.D. in his comfortable suite on Death Row listens for the Time-Has-Come signal. Receptors flag as he diminishes, but retrospective juices seep as he hums mortuary airs."
Friends collected some of these "mortuary airs" and issued a small private printing of 20 poems. Among them is the one featured here in the original version, typed on a small index card, which Dan handed to me along with a stack of other drafts that were no longer needed:
(A Thought While Running) -
"Can you tell me what it's like to die?"
"I'll try -
But not the 'dying' part: rather
The charm of being dead.
After you've sawn through bars,
Cast off what encumbers,
And sailed past stars
Anonymous as numbers."
The parenthetical title does not appear in the private printing; it helps clarify that the poem originated as one of those imaginary conversations which Dan liked to hold with himself and which would frequently serve as the inspiration for future poems (I will post other examples).
As the poem tells us, once we're through with the tedious business of dying, death might actually fun or "charming." That said, Dan's text, like Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death," remains stuck on the dying part, on all the things one needs go through before such charm can be enjoyed: the breaking of the bars, the casting-off, the traveling through eternities. Yet Dan's cheerful rhymes also suggest that the result - sailing along in the comforting company of anonymous stars, a welcome change from the encumbering prison of individuality - might just be worth the effort. As fantasies go, not a bad one.