‘Grinning Jack’ – the theme of death in Patten’s poetry

Many of Patten's poems deal with the themes of ageing and mortality. In Staring at the Crowd he says, 'I saw the skeleton in everyone'. He reflects that 'Grinning Jack' (the skeleton, symbolising death) lurks inside everyone, waiting for its moment to conquer the flesh and shed its outer covering. He points out, in a mildly ironical way, that we go through life preoccupied with our mundane existences, and our plans for the future, oblivious of the fact of ever-present invisible death, Grinning Jack, threatening to put an abrupt end to everything. But perhaps it is this characteristic of life that enables us to take an interest in the trivial aspects of daily life; otherwise we would experience the grimness of a graveyard in everything we did.

The Last Gift, an elegy on the untimely death of Patten's friend Heinz Henghes, expresses the poet's grievance that 'the last gift' - God's gift of a long life to some, while denying it to others - is beyond human comprehension. Although perhaps there is some consolation in that idea that, according to Patten, the soul that rises from a human body could be reborn in the form of a fish or a sparrow or even a plant.

I still strut without understanding

Between an entrance of skin and an exit of soil.

It is too much to expect he will come back

In the same form,

Molecule by sweet molecule reassembled.

When the grave pushes him back up

Into the blood or the tongue of a sparrow,

When he becomes the scent of foxglove,

Becomes fish or glow-worm,

When as a mole he nuzzles his way up

Eating worms that once budded inside him,

It's too much to expect that I'll still be around.

I'll not be here when he comes back

As a moth with no memory of flames.

('The Last Gift' - Grinning Jack p. 132-133)

In Cinders Patten laments the death of his mother, whose 'Life was never a fairy-tale', and in Armada recounts his nostalgic reminiscence of childhood days spent with her. Just as a child's paper boat was blown out of reach by a gust of wind, so too was his mother 'Blown out of reach by the smallest whisper of death'.

For as on a pond a child's paper boat

Was blown out of reach

By the smallest gust of wind,

So too have you been blown out of reach

By the smallest whisper of death...

('The Armada' - Armada. p. 14-15)

The poem In the Dark suggests that the fear of death as one becomes older is so overpowering that one expects death any moment, blissfully ignorant of the fact that 'death might pass by' and ignore one for the present after all.

Just as Shakespeare described the seven stages of man's life, Patten has presented the grim reality of death in its true form in Five Down. The icy cold hands of death freeze all five senses; sans touch, sans smell, sans hearing, seeing, taste - sans everything. But Patten believes that death does not necessarily have to be the end, that a 'man lives so many different lengths of time' in that he continues to live in the thoughts of his near and dear ones even after his death. Hence even in death there is continuation of life - that is the paradox of human life.

A man lives for as long as we carry inside us,

For as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams,

For as long as we ourselves live,

Holding memories in common, a man lives.

('So Many Different Lengths of Time' - Armada. p. 70-71)

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Mann Erudite – Essays on Literary Works