Something I’ve found myself juggling with recently is life’s transitory nature. Lately, it’s been tough for me to grasp that everything I’m experiencing is an exceedingly personal sensory experience, one that will eventually come to an end. While this is something that seems to hit everybody over the head like an anvil sometime in our later childhood – usually around 10 to 12 years old, but in much more simplistic terms (just the thought of “I will die one day”) – for some reason it’s been resting heavy on my mind recently. Our mortality will inevitably best us in the end, but my real pondering remains: what’s left once we’re gone?
W.S. Merwin, a 91-year-old poet residing in New York, grapples with this same question on his own abstract terms in his poem “Rain Light.” In the poem, Merwin depicts scenes of iridescent nature that leave a lasting sensation following their death and subsequent rebirth. Yet to start the poem, Merwin addresses the night sky and his mother:
“All day the stars watch from long ago / my mother said I am going now.”
Merwin immediately dives deep into both the beautiful stain stars leave on the night sky and his imminent mortality as said by his mother. This is a striking paradox; his mother very plainly states that he will have to die, and do so sooner rather than later, yet the stars’ bright residue maintain a surviving impact even though they themselves have already physically departed. Merwin seems to be hinting that we all have a sort of rebirth, or more accurately, we all leave a lasting impression, despite having to eventually leave our physical forms.
As he goes on to say later in the poem, “all the flowers are forms of water.” Everything that is gorgeous is a product of something, whether that something is still present on Earth or not. Merwin is a product of his mother, much like what we see in the night sky is a product of the stars of yesteryear.
Earl Sweatshirt, a 24-year-old hip-hop artist born Thebe Kgositsile, has dealt with much of the same existential-remnant contemplations in his often incisively introspective music. On Earl’s song “December 24,” he raps of both he and his grandmother’s struggles with alcohol along with our imminent destruction as beings bound to die:
“Remember when they had my grandmammy on a drip drink / How much of that gin straight? Could have filled a fish tank / My doggy hit my cell, say he got me off the strength / Ask him, ‘That’s just how it is?’ / say, ‘You die and then you live, huh?’ / Your heart and then your limbs break / Just catch me when I slip, bro.”
Through a conversation with his close friend, Earl explains that the impact we leave behind lasts far longer than our physical bodies do; thus, you “die and then you live,” and not vice-versa. He concurs that the world breaks your spirit first (maybe why both he and his grandmother relied on alcohol as a coping mechanism) and then your body follows suit. Earl, as a result, simply ends up hoping his friend will be there for him when things go south in his own life, succumbing both to the ephemeral state of our mortality and our tendency to break when under the pressure of such a crushing fact.
Earl goes on to present an interesting paradox of his own later in the song to compliment that of Merwin’s:
“We passin, n***** know we keep the gas inside the spliff roll / The wind get the ashes in the end, bro.”
While Earl first addresses his inclination to smoke marijuana, he then creates both a double entendre and a striking existential statement with, “The wind get the ashes in the end, bro.” After smoking a spliff, the wind gets those ashes, and that’s the obvious explanation of the line. Yet, more importantly – or maybe not more importantly because Earl’s speaking on how transitory our lives are on Earth and questioning the importance of things both big and small – the wind will receive our ashes at the end of our life.
Essentially, the planet will outlive all of us and continue as a backdrop for the cyclical nature of life and reproduction and death. Paired with Merwin’s paradox, Earl’s interpretation seems to be a darker take on a similar finding.
Both Earl and Merwin speak on what endures within us through challenging times and after our physical death, but what should we do in the present to fight this existential dread?
Both writers go on to address and accept their fates on their own terms, which turn out to be equally uplifting despite their grim backdrops. Merwin confides in the afterlife’s internal beauty and drive to be remembered, while Earl rests his attention on his personal faith in our current imperfections.
On Earl’s aptly-titled song “Veins,” he begins the song with a very simple statement: “Keep faith, my n****.”
It’s a straightforward rallying cry to keep pushing forward, despite all of the draining and soul-crushing facets of life he regularly discusses in his music – which range from acknowledging the phthisic nature of our political and social ecosystem (“Stuck in Trumpland watchin’ subtlety decayin’”) to his own “burnt body in a case.”
Yet, he soon finds additional solace in humanity’s endurance and his own faith, just as he did to begin the song: “When it’s time to put my burnt body in a case / Tell my momma I said thank you / Tryna state facts, I’m tryna get through the day.” And again, more simply to end the song, he passionately raps, “Be safe, seek sake, my n**** / Keep faith, my n****.” This is Earl encouraging all of us to hold on through the dark times and simply keep faith.
Meanwhile, Merwin ends “Rainlight” with these striking words: “the washed colors of the afterlife / that lived there long before you were born / see how they wake without a question / even though the whole world is burning.” The poet offers up a refusal to quit, even after acknowledging death and rebirth and an entire world that is in the inchoate stages of an inexorable death. Nevertheless, it’s the “washed colors of the afterlife” that matter in the end, and “how they wake without a question / even when the whole world is burning.”
Through all the “long trip(s), sifting through memories over dumb spliffs,” as Earl admits on “Loosie”; through all the wasting away of social subtlety in our current political climate; through the whole world burning as Merwin puts it, Earl Sweatshirt is just “tryna get through the day” and W.S. Merwin is only trying to “wake without a question.”
Or, as poet Jack Gilbert says in his poem “A Brief for the Defense”: “We must admit there will be music despite everything.”
Our physical forms will cease to exist, the whole world will burn, but there will be music despite everything, so this by itself should be enough to “keep faith.”