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Mort Facing

"WHO DIED?" — an elegy for Mort Marcus

by Tom Marshall - November 2009

There was just one question on the test;
it was: "Who died when I died?"
The Professor had offered to entertain his new friends
with a lecture and an oral exam
from his old profession. His class
was every angel gathered in heaven.

One brave angel offered an answer,
"The boy from Brooklyn," he said,
"that's what's dead and gone,"
and that angel thought himself very clever
to have gotten to the root of things right away.

The Professor, however, said nothing,
and very soon another angel said, "No,
just the fact that you said that
shows that we all know his spirit.
Though it may seem gone from our times
and people say, 'they just don't make 'em
like that anymore,' we know it;
we know that spirit because he kept it alive.

And before the Professor could respond,
another angel shouted out, "You're right.
What's really gone are the secrets
that the boy developed as he grew older,
a 'teenager in love' as the song goes,"
but another interrupted, "No,
the lover is not dead; that's the heart we all can see
in the poems he wrote later. That's not what's dead;
it's the hippie he was for a while that's defunct.
We all know now that the Sixties are dead."
But as you might guess, one hirsute angel shouted, "No"
and shook his long and curly locks. "No,
never; that's the one thing that will live forever
in the dream of a better world."
"A better world is no thing to dream,"
pronounced another. "It's the tireless worker
for a better community and socialized world
that we will never see again." Yet another said,
"But look; people are gathering even now in his name
and there creating brand new opportunities
for poetry and for community. No,
it's the father, the husband, the family man
who is gone and missing from a small circle of hearts."
"No" and "No" and "No" was heard
from the circle of angels who guard those hearts.
The guardians said, "No, he lives there
more than anywhere; love lets him live on."
And when one grumpy voice said, "It's the poet
that's dead," an even larger circle of guardian angels
(each one the protector of some poet) shouted,
"No, the poet lives on in hundreds of souls."
Then one angel murmured, "I think
it's the teacher who's dead.
Who can learn anything worth while now that
that big mind full of knowledge is gone?"
But a whole chorus of angels nearly sang, "No,
the teaching lives on! Think how many film fans
and poetry buffs and essay scribblers and
word spellers and grammar self-checkers and..."
(their littany went on and on) "How many
think of him when they do what they can
because of the teacher, because of that man."

It was then that the old Professor spoke,
his words exhaled in a puff of soft smoke, "So,
you say that it's not A: the Brooklyn boy
and his boyish spirit that died, not B:
the 'teen-ager in love' nor C: the hippie, not D: the community activist;
it's not E: the family guy and not even F:
the poet nor G: the teacher. Are you sure?" he boomed,
"Are you sure that each and every one of these
lives on? And, I must ask you, do
you know the answer, then?"

The angels hushed and listened to him,
the newest member of their number,
and one whispered, "Maybe it's H: all of the above
that we should mourn." Then louder as his courage
started to gather, "Maybe all of the above are dead."

But as those words echoed in the starry chamber
above the angels' bowed heads,
the Professor puffed out another word,
his own "No," firm and low and just a little gruff.
"No," he repeated, "the answer is I:
none of the above, and you know it.
You said it. None of you got the answer right, and all
of you did. The answer is I as I am sitting here.
No one died," said the Professor, "As long as
the books and those moments are vivid
with people choosing to remember them
(and here's hoping that those things last longer than your wings)
as long as those things live, no one died.)

One cocky angel responded, flapping his feathered appendages
as if to prove them still intact, "Yes, of course, sir
but that's just the word of an old guy talking in a chair."
"Exactly," said Mort as he tapped his cigar
in a Groucho gesture, "and that is the secret word."
Just then, God let a duck dangle down on a string,
and set all of heaven off into laughing.

 


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