During the last decade or so of his life, Dan Aaron kept returning to a series of short poems he called, with fully intended irony, "Mortuary Airs," a kind of humming or chanting in the face of death or, rather, a death that has already taken place or nearly taken place. Eventually, the cycle consisted of twenty separate poems, which some friends printed for him, including a short preamble in which Dan speaks (as he also does in some of the poems) about himself in the third person: "In the years that are left to him, D.A. in his comforrtable 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."
In some of the installments Dan, without sentimentality, confronts his physical decay: "Daniel, once so vigorous and hale, / Will (shortly) look (and be) beyond the pale." In other poems, death, Dickinson-style, kindly stops for him ("Enormously tall / With a thick face") and is sent away again, at least for now: "I stared, / Neither pleased nor scared, /Neither calm nor unsteady--/ But not quite ready." In several installments, Dan is already dead, which, in this memorable poem, he describes as an ecstatic, even exhilarating, experience:
"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 rhyme in the last four lines enhances the magic of the experience he imagines. Anonymity comes as a relief from the prison of the professional hankering for recognition, the bane of the academic life, from which Dan admits he wasn't free either. This unsparing look at his own striving for significance finds its definitive expression in the poem that follows:
When I die,
Will God blink his eye?
The sun sniff itself out?
This I doubt,
But perhaps the earth will tilt,
And the moon flush with guilt,
And the clouds drip tears.
Then after many years
When nothing remains of me--not a particle,
I shall sparkle
In the footnote of an article.
The poem begins by rejecting the grandiose fantasy that the universe will care about Dan Aaron's death. God will be indifferent (paring his fingernails, as Joyce would have put it), and the sun will go on shining. But this is fake modesty, for the next melodramatic stanza imagines three more ways in which the world could indeed show that it cares: the earth could wobble on its axis (since it's already tilted anyway), the moon could turn purple, and the clouds rain tears.
The corniness of that second fantasy is qualified by the "perhaps" that introduces the stanza and then permanently rejected by the final stanza, which substitutes slow decay for cataclysmic fanfare, biological process for professions of grief: "nothing remains of me." Well, not quite nothing--Professor Aaron will live on, even "sparkle," as a reference in an academic footnote, maybe an ironic echo of Shakespeare's promise, to his lover, that, in his verse, he shall "shine more bright.../ Than unswept stone" (sonnet 55). Thus endeth a life that, if wasn't always well-lived, was at least, to the best of one's ability, lived.