Patrick Clary

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Dying for Beginners

Clary, Patrick

Last Updated: Jun-04-2010
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)


Patrick Clary's Dying for Beginners is a collection of vibrant poems about living (as well as dying); about family, friends, music, loss, war and love. The book's title is evocative of the countercultural insight that dying is an essential part of living.  We only become fully human by coming to grips with our own mortality.  This engagement with mortality emerges from love and humor, as well as from suffering and loss.  Clary's poems speak to what he has discovered about himself, as a beginner to his fellow beginners.

The poet's route to discovery traverses Death Valley, where, during a spiritual retreat and vision quest, he has this epiphany: "Suddenly, I find all my wounds are turning into blessings" (p. 1). This inversion of categories is not an exotic, one-off event, but becomes a new way of looking at the world, a perspective in which life events, carefully observed and described, blossom with deeper meanings that can only be expressed by metaphor or paradox. For example, in "Days I Don't Remember," Clary reflects, "And all my roads are turning into rivers" (p. 27). Or, in "Meditation on the Pays d'Oc," he observes, "Instead of dying, I cough up a butterfly, watch it / dry its wings in the sun..." (p. 74). Or the essential quietism of "That silence moving through our lives was me" (p. 33).

The poet had his first lessons in dying when he worked as a medic during the Vietnam War, In "Orientation at Bien Hoa," he discovers, "Yes, gentlemen / This little war here / Exists only / For one reason: / To give you all the pleasure / You can handle" (p. 10).  He also learns how easy it is to kill with an M 16 rifle, which can "Put eighteen holes in / Whatever you point it at / Inside of two seconds" (p. 11). Meanwhile, the human tragedy of Vietnam takes place all around him.  

Clary reflects on the limits of his calling in "Three Variations", where he observes his own hands, "professionally / Tender on demand, but still uneasy / At your easy tenderness" (p. 35). The words "professionally tender on demand" evoke his work in palliative medicine, although the same words could-and should-apply to medical practice in general.  But Clary recognizes that the human capacity for compassion is not inexhaustible. There will always be a tension between the work that needs to be done ("another pair of hands in the emergency room," p. 63) and our limited reserves of kindness and empathy.

The book ends with a humorous and moving short prose narrative ("Origins of the Earwax Patrol," pp. 83-86) about caring for terminally ill patients.

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