Daily Archives: December 8, 2014

Philip Appleman: Poem About His Mother’s Dying


A Young Version                                                  Today, in his late 80s

Philip D. Appleman (1926 –  ) is an American poet and Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. I first became acquainted with him when I read his edited collection, Darwin (Norton Critical Editions), which is a classic in the field. Here is a quote from an essay he contributed to that book:

Looking back at a million years of our struggle to be human, at our errant and painful attempts to be a special kind of animal—the animal who thinks, the animal who creates—it seems to me that despite our shortcomings, we have some cause for satisfaction … We are worth keeping because, given our remarkable past, we may continue to hope that we have, as Darwin surmised, “a still higher destiny in the future.”

I recently became aware that Appleman, as he nears the age of ninety, has published a new book: The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life.

Here is a quote from the book which exemplifies his beautiful prose, “Religion stalks across the face of human history, knee-deep in the blood of innocents, clasping its red hands in hymns of praise to an approving God.” And here is an exemplar of his deep thinking:

Religion says: console yourself, there will be another chance, another life. Two things are wrong with this. First, there is not a shred of evidence for it and, second, it is a sop, consciously intended to blunt our rage and regret, thus dehumanizing us. Our anger at death is precious, testifying to the value of life; our sorrow for family and friends testifies to our devotion.

I find the final sentence particularly moving. It reveals as noble, not egocentric, the wellspring of the idea that death is a great evil. Appleman’s most moving poem about death and religion concerns his mother’s dying. I’ll let it speak for itself.

“GERTRUDE”
Gertrude Appleman, 1901-1976
God is all-knowing, all-present, and almighty.
— A Catechism of Christian Doctrine

I wish that all the people
who peddle God
could watch my mother die:
could see the skin and
gristle weighing only
seventy-nine, every stubborn
pound of flesh a small
death.

I wish the people who peddle God
could see her young,
lovely in gardens and
beautiful in kitchens, and could watch
the hand of God slowly
twisting her knees and fingers
till they gnarled and knotted, settling in
for thirty years of pain.

I wish the people who peddle God
could see the lightning
of His cancer stabbing
her, that small frame
tensing at every shock,
her sweet contralto scratchy with
the Lord’s infection: Philip,
I want to die.

I wish I had them gathered round,
those preachers, popes, rabbis,
imams, priests – every
pious shill on God’s payroll – and I
would pull the sheets from my mother’s brittle body,
and they would fall on their knees at her bedside
to be forgiven all their faith.