“The Afterlife,” by Stan Rice, from Red to the Rind, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002†
“The Afterlife” is a calm, sweetly melancholic lyric, which describes one final act of connubial tenderness—a wife combs her dead husband’s hair before seeing his body off in an ambulance. The poem is only seven lines long, but it contains one of the most dynamic, forceful, and daring turns that I’ve ever encountered in a poem. The turn comes in the penultimate line, and is abrupt and startling. The poet addresses the reader directly, emphatically: “Go to Venice, stupid.” The shift in tone, diction and mode of address is so disquieting; it almost feels like a violation. The move is reminiscent of Rilke’s famous turn in his “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which ends with the admonition: “You must change your life.” The differences, however, are significant. Where Rilke is breezy, detached and philosophical, Rice is brazen, confrontational and pugnacious. You must change your life, all right, and I’m going to tell you just how to do it. This is a profoundly American poem: the voice is demotic, and after the turn, a little coarse; death and sentimentality are cunningly wedded; but perhaps most tellingly, the poem is pragmatic. Rice is unafraid to give advice (“Go to Venice, stupid.”), but he softens his command, and ends his poem, with an affectionate gesture of compassion: “Hurry.”
Gary Young is a poet and artist whose books include Hands, The Dream of A Moral Life, winner of the James D. Phelan Award, Days, Braver Deeds, winner of the Peregrine Smith Poetry Prize, and No Other Life, which won the William Carlos Williams Award. His Even So: New and Selected Poems has just been released from White Pine Press. He has received a Pushcart Prize, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. He edits the Greenhouse Review Press, and his print work is represented in many collections including the Museum of Modern Art and the Getty Center for the Arts. He teaches at the University of California Santa Cruz.
†As we were unable to attain reprint permissions or find a link to an accurate online version of the poem, we offer a citation in lieu of the poem itself. We encourage interested readers to consult the print version.