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Elegy for an Unremarkable Man

Poor Niel is dead. He’d been off sick since May.
Cancer, they said, as if we couldn’t guess,
And, since we didn’t know what words to say,
We stayed away. If pressed, we might confess
We’d turned our jellied backs to his distress,
Acting from some vain, primitive belief
It might ward off those dreams of sleeplessness
When for ourselves we lie awake in grief.
His death, when it arrived at last, was a relief.

We’re left to wonder what it’s like to die;
They say the drugs can wash away all pain,
But still, it must be boring to just lie
And wait, while doctors patiently explain
That slow starvation isn’t inhumane
And any further care would just postpone
Your great demotion to that dark domain.
How awful it must be to die alone;
You’d hope the nurses let him hold on to his phone.

He had no faith as far as we could tell
Beyond those platitudes we all recite,
And not a word he proffered could dispel
The air of middle-class suburbanite:
Well-educated, earnest and polite
But something of an affable cliché
And quite the opposite of recondite.
Most liked him well enough but none could say
His loss aroused strong feelings in us either way.

And yet he sometimes smiled as if amused
At something we’d not understood, and in
The margins of the minutes, unperused,
His scribbled sketches spoke to discipline
And hinted at some hidden harlequin
Crouching behind the bland exterior.
Like us, he likely lived his best within
From fear we’d mock his dreams as dreary, or
Simply because he found this world inferior.

So now lost friends and fellow workers file
Into his final conference room, a space
Where emptiness is sacralized in style
Suited to governance more so than grace,
As if banality might best efface
The fear of all that black, and as we find
Our seats, a sober smile or limp embrace
For those we pass, we cannot leave behind
The mundane world and its demands upon the mind.

The celebrant is late, and so we wait
On plastic chairs and stare at tiny screens.
Then one observes this self-same real estate
Was once a place which fixed old fax machines
And such condolence wrought from pathos means
Much more to us than grieving’s pantomime:
A life reduced to trite, curated scenes;
Perhaps a poem built from awkward rhyme;
And, finally, some song he said he liked one time.

Then, after sandwiches and one light beer
It’s back to work as his remains are burned
And all the silly things which he held dear,
Those scraps of happiness his ennui earned
As compensation for a life adjourned
Are left beside the road. Then, once the home
Where he had lived alone has been returned
To ashes, on that land a honeycomb
Of gleaming tenements will bubble up like foam.

To stumble from the premises like this
And leave the universe without a scar,
To slip from coffee breaks to the abyss
When you’ve lived half your life inside your car
And never told another who you are,
Seems an obscenity, a tasteless joke,
Like a vacation to an abattoir,
And any cheap excuses we invoke
Will soon dissolve into the empty sky like smoke.

Yet Adam was a gardener, so they say
And, though that Paradise sounds rather nice,
It still demanded work from day to day.
And while our pride insists a higher price
Be placed upon our selfish sacrifice,
We’re gifted moments pregnant with surprise,
When all around us seems to shine like ice;
We look upon the world with ancient eyes
As something small and sad inside us briefly dies

And, as we step into that ground we share
With all of Nature’s gaze, we might sense one
Who waits behind us and become aware
That we have walked, backs turned against the sun,
Complaining to our shadows. Niel is done
With all that now. May he be satisfied
To leave behind those lives left unbegun
And may the rest of us forget our pride,
Knowing that better men than we have also died.

.

.

Shaun C. Duncan is a picture framer and fine art printer who lives in Adelaide, South Australia.


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24 Responses

  1. Theresa Cummings

    both beautiful and sad as a comment on how
    we live our lives. Thank you

    Reply
  2. Paul Freeman

    Wow! That was fantastic. So many thought-provoking, quotable lines (my fave is below).

    ‘…That we have walked, backs turned against the sun,
    Complaining to our shadows…’

    Thanks for a corker, Shaun.

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      I’m glad you liked it! Thanks for taking the time to read it, Paul.

      Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you, Paul. I’d never written in Spenserian stanzas before but I really enjoy the interlocking rhyme schemes. The Alexandrine at the end of each stanza also gives the final line extra weight, which is fun to play with.

      Reply
  3. Norma Pain

    I really enjoyed your poem Shaun. Life and death and the seemingly insignificance of our lives in retrospect. Sad I suppose. Thank you… I think!

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you, Norma. I think a lot of people would find the prospect of their own death a lot less traumatic if they didn’t expect so much from this life.

      Reply
  4. Allegra Silberstein

    Thank you for this amazing poem that speaks so eloqently of life and death.

    Reply
  5. Joshua C. Frank

    Well done! It’s a great description of the person, with many memorable lines, and it captures the feeling of the grief for him well.

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thanks, Joshua. It was an odd one to write as it’s based in part on the death of my father (who passed 10 years ago on January 7) but is narrated from the perspective of someone who didn’t know him well.

      Reply
  6. Roy Eugene Peterson

    Shaun, you have captured the essence of many of our own thoughts about the uncommon common man we all likely represent with death dancing around our door. Beautifully written with entrancing rhyme and descriptive verses.

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Yes, we are all unremarkable to the eyes of those who don’t know us well. Thank you for the kind remarks.

      Reply
  7. Jeff Eardley

    Shaun, what a super poem this is and so moving. I choked up on, “How awful it must be to die alone, You’d hope the nurses let him hold on to his phone.”
    Thank you for a most touching read.

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      I’m glad to hear it moved you, Jeff. My default mode is often cynicism, but I’m trying to bring a bit more balance to my work. Thank you for the generous comment and for taking the time to read my poem.

      Reply
  8. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Shaun, what an accomplishment – a poem embracing the constraints of an unusual combination of forms with liberal and admirable use of poetic devices, that manages to speak in a matter-of-fact conversational tone, whereby all your hard work melts into the background to leave this reader feeling she is in Niel’s “final conference room” mulling over her own mundane life while feeling she has missed all the remarkable traits (thank you for the tear-jerking clues) of this “Unremarkable Man.” A truly magnificent poem! Thank you!

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you, Susan – your generous review of the poem describes everything I’d hoped it would be!

      Reply
  9. Margaret Coats

    Shaun, this is magnificent work in Spenserian stanzas. You do full justice to a serious topic, looking at it from many angles. I particularly like stanza 4, suggesting depth of character beneath this man unremarkable in so many ways. I must suggest two changes, the first of them demanded by grammar. Please have Mike Bryant change the last line to say, “better men than we have also died.” Why “we”? Because the expression means “better men than we [are] have died.” You cannot say, “better men than us [are] have died.” My other suggestion is not requisite, but fitting. Since you decide to cremate Niel rather than bury him, it is best to use “ashes” rather than “dust” and adjust stanza 7 to say, “returned/To ashes, on that land”. Overall, this admirable poem takes a careful look at a common situation. Niel may have made less of a mark on social surroundings than others, but there are few who both earn long and profound memory from their friends, and receive it. In certain ways, I believe, most of us can apply much of what you have said to ourselves.

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you for the kind words and insightful suggestions, Margaret. My grasp of grammar often feels tenuous at best so appreciate having such errors pointed out. Changing “dust” to “ashes” is a fantastic idea and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t think of it.

      I’ll email Mike about the changes.

      Reply
  10. C.B. Anderson

    You are so good at this, Shaun, that I almost don’t know what to say. Complex ideas demand complex forms, and your expertise when it comes to framing pictures is quite evident in your literary constructions. You always come across loud and clear.

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you, CB, you’re most kind. Clarity and form are both very important to me in my own work. I sometimes feel like I should add more lyricism and maybe a bit of mystery to things, but I worry I’d be tempted to pass off vagueness and fuzzy thinking as high art if I did.

      Reply
  11. Monika Cooper

    I felt the turn in the fourth stanza, with the glimpse of Niel’s marginalia, the word “discipline.” That was when the irony of “unremarkable” was felt. It might be that the best of us is in the margins, the stray, unfinished gestures. The Medievals put their gold there for a reason. It takes the eye of a supreme and merciful Judge to gather up the holy flakes and fragments.

    Reply
  12. Anna J. Arredondo

    Shaun,

    I read this and enjoyed it very much days ago, but hadn’t had a chance to leave a comment. As many have already commented, the rhyme scheme was handled masterfully, and still felt conversational.
    I really like the lines
    “Like us, he likely lived his best within
    From fear we’d mock his dreams as dreary, or
    Simply because he found this world inferior.”
    I was most struck by this line:

    “And leave the universe without a scar.”

    Surely none of us, remarkable or not, will never manage to pull that off. And yet, we’d like to at least make some kind of ripple in our immediate vicinity before we stumble off the premises…

    Reply

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