What do you do if you a happily married middle aged bloke, with a secure family, good friends, steady job, with your first collection of poetry recently published and you visit the doctor with a cough and get told that you have inoperable lung cancer, that you have between three to twelve months to live? Me? I’d curl up in a hole. Either that or I’d indulge myself in every pleasure that would be possible to cram into the remainder of my life. Might even turn to religion who knows… what I almost certainly would not do was what John J Whitmarsh did, and that is to set about recording my emotions, my pain, my love for my family, friends, for humanity and for life, in poetic form. It is as well to mention here that JJ, as I called him, was an atheist, he stuck by that throughout his last months and even joked about it remarking to me in an email once that in case he was wrong I should keep my fingers crossed for him. This humour was echoed in one of the poems, Outside the Map Room wherein he envisages his coming death. It is a brief poem written in obvious rhyme and he surely knew the irony of referring to ‘me’ at the end of each stanza, as this ‘me’ was soon to be no more. It is worth repeating in its entirety:
Outside the Map Room
A man and immortal,
Yet suddenly Death’s portal
Gaped wide and inviting before me.
A sign overhead
‘Today you shall not ignore me.’
I took one tiny stride
To the door tall and wide
And saw there, laid out before me,
The future’s fine map
That through chance or mishap
Marked out the way forward for me.
I shook off the coil
Of this body disloyal
To join the immortals before me,
And with one final leap
I plunged into the deep
(Please keep your fingers crossed for me!)
I like to think that when he took that final leap he was smiling in the same way I envisaged him as he added the last line to that particular poem.
So what? You might be thinking. Lots of people die, lots of people write poetry. Well that is true enough but very few people, when faced with death, set about reassuring everyone around them that every thing will be all right. Even to the point of viewing his death in a totally detached manner and referring to his life as being much more important than his death. This is epitomised in his poem Counting Days wherein he implores the reader to actually listen to what he has to say; ‘Listen:/ Listen to my contrary view:/ I am grateful,/ Indebted, exhilarated,/ Ecstatic/ For my numbered days/ Are days to be celebrated…’ JJ never crouched in a corner and felt sorry for himself; how could he when he was so concerned with how everyone else was feeling? Look to what he writes, look to how he repeats the word ‘Listen’ as though fearful that you won’t.
Sometimes though, towards the end, he was as high as a kite on morphine. Emails from JJ at this time were however still laden with humour which he transferred into verse; as in Porcelain Cup which describes a night time hallucination and a lengthy conversation he had with non other than the Mikado who etches a likeness of Beijing on a chocolate digestive with his finger nail. The scenario was ‘Opera Fantastic dramatic’ and very real to JJ at the time and his enquiring mind simply needed to record and analyse the event and set it down too in the order of things, but to set it down with humour and in whimsical form.
He also however took time-out to record the horror of both the physical pain he was in and the emotional pain of leaving behind his loving wife and children. It was because he was loved so fearlessly and so openly by others, but especially by his wife Sue, that JJ was able to face Death squarely, was able to set his fingers to tapping out the words on his PC every day as the inevitable end approached. He wrote on one of these days a simple love poem that I find curiously moving. I read it almost as a voyeur, as it seems not meant for me, seems incredibly personal, it is as if I had picked up a love note resting on a piano and glanced at it almost guiltily:
Simply Three Words
The saying of these words
Is the music of my soul,
When:- ‘I love you,’ she whispers,
The saying of these words
Is the rhythm of my life
And the basis of my future dreams,
The saying of these words
Is the music of my soul.
JJ wrote one poem in which he envisaged he would eventually ‘slip away as sleep slips quietly in.’ Paula Brown, JJ’s publisher, remarks at the end of this collection: ‘John did have his wish, and slipped quietly away during his sleep on April 4th 2004.’ The cover of the book incidentally shows Bant’s Carn, the place where his ashes are scattered.
So why should you buy this book? Well firstly you should not buy it because I have told you that John J Whitmarsh was the bravest, least selfish, human-being that I ever met; my feelings here are quite irrelevant. But there are many reasons why you should buy it: You should buy it if you have a burden to carry, it will ease your burden. You should buy it if you are a carer, for it is all about care. You should buy it if you believe you love someone, for it will show you what real love is. You should buy it if someone you love is suffering, for it will help you understand. Most of all though you should buy it because it is not just a book about how to face up to death, it is a book about how to celebrate life.
I am going to say an odd thing now, before I end this book review. I am going to say to you, the stranger reading my words, that JJ loved you, for he loved all humanity. I will leave you with one of his very last poems in which, yet again, he implores you to ‘listen’:
Listen this one last time
To the words of a man
Who is determined to display
The sum of his meaning
On the canvas of your ear –
…and he did, he really did, it’s all there in the book.
© Copyright Alan Corkish 2005