Back to Issue Thirty-Nine




You know it as the river of oblivion, the one the dead drink from
to forget their mortal lives. What would you like
to put out of your mind forever? The one thing
I’d want to forget is something I didn’t even do:

a friend told me he had enrolled his daughter
in a boarding school, but when the girl got cold feet
at the last minute and he tried to cancel the contract,
the school said his deposit was non-refundable,

so he waited a few days and called back and told them
his daughter had died. “Golden lads and girls
all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust,”
says Shakespeare, but wouldn’t you be horrified

if you’d done that? Just sounds like bad luck to me—
sounds as though you’re asking for it. When I think
how few of my words or actions I want to forget,
it makes me suspect I’ve not been quite the rascal

I think I am, though once I did see Sir Ian McKellen
in an airport, and he was flipping through a script,
and I have this little gimmick I like to use when
I want to have a conversation with a celebrity,

which is not to say you’re their biggest fan
(they’ve heard that) or you have all their albums
(they’ve heard that, too) but to ask them a question
they can’t not answer, which, in this case, was

“Sir Ian, is that Twelfth Night you’re reading?”
and he looks up and smiles and says, “Oh, no—
this is Macbeth,” and I say, “I can’t believe
you said the name of that play!” and he says

“That might not be right for other people,
but this is my lucky play,” which it may well be,
since he has been in many an acclaimed production
of it, and so off we went, just chatting about

the theatre and the arts in general until
our flight arrived, which is when I did the thing
I’d like to forget: he took his seat, and I took
mine across the aisle, which is when

I got out my phone and called Barbara,
who was still asleep at home, and passed
the phone to Sir Ian McKellen while
it was still ringing and said, “Sir Ian,

would you mind saying hello to Barbara?”
and he gave me a look that told me I had crossed
a line, because he probably gets asked to do this
all the time, though he took the phone

and was just as charming as he could be
to Barbara (I was the one who’d fucked up, not her)
and then passed the phone back and gave me the look
again to confirm what I already knew.

I don’t think I’d mention this incident
if I were writing my own obituary,
which I actually intend to do since the ones
in my local newspaper are all terrible: it’s good

to know that you loved gardening, playing with
your grandkids, and of course cheering for
the Florida State Seminoles, because the world
is a better place for all that, though it makes every

dead person in Tallahassee sound like every other,
and I’m happier still if you’ve been “welcomed
into the arms of the Lord,” but all I can say
is Our Creator better have one hell of a wing span,

since half a dozen others on today’s obituary page
got some version of that same celestial greeting.
The problem is that almost anything you say
about yourself, no matter how self-deprecating,

sounds boastful, so that even if, in the course
of describing my early life, I said that I had
polio when I was five but recovered, it sounds
as though I am, at best, congratulating myself

on my good fortune, and, at worst, implying
that I now have more moral fiber than
the millions who never contracted polio at all
as well as a deeper understanding of and more

nuanced philosophical approach to life in general,
since it is widely if erroneously assumed
that people who have recovered from
catastrophic diseases have acquired these virtues

that are, at the same time, denied to those
who merely got born, got potty-trained, went
to school, came home, grew up, got married, got jobs,
had kids of their own, took up gardening,

played with their grandkids, and cheered
for the Florida State Seminoles. I bet all this
would be a lot easier if I were a celebrity myself.
I wouldn’t have to think about these things

if I were as popular as Hans Christian Anderson
was. He never married, but he didn’t have to
to worry about not having any grandkids
to garden with or take to football games

because every child loved him, and he knew it:
Hans Christian Anderson probably didn’t
write his own obituary, but shortly before
his death, he conferred with the composer

of his funeral march and told him that
“most of the people who walk after me
will be children, so make the beat keep time
with little steps.” I’m older than Barbara,

so I’ll probably die before she does.
I certainly hope she doesn’t die before I do!
What’s the point of watching a show
on TV unless you watch it with someone else

so the next day you can talk about
the characters as though they’re real people?
But I think or at least hope that I’m not going
to die for a long time, meaning I should have

a number of years remaining to me
in which I have the opportunity to commit
such deeds as I’ll want to forget when
I kneel on the banks of the Lethe

and drink of its waters. I should have left
well enough alone. I’d had a lovely conversation
with Sir Ian McKellen in the airport
that day, and he’d probably be thinking

that Americans are pretty decent chaps, after all,
and not the coarse, ill-mannered bumpkins
they’re portrayed as in the British media,
a prime example of which would be

your present hero as he passed his phone
to Sir Ian McKellen on the plane that morning
and asked him to utter a few choice words
to drowsy Barbara. Thing is, Barbara liked it.


David Kirby teaches at Florida State University. His collection The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for both the National Book Award and Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize. He is the author of Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which the Times Literary Supplement of London called “a hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense” and was named one of Booklist’s Top 10 Black History Non-Fiction Books of 2010. His latest books are a poetry collection, Help Me, Information, and a textbook modestly entitled The Knowledge: Where Poems Come From and How to Write Them.

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