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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page BW12

Look around the airplane or the bus and what are people reading? Maybe the newspaper with its chronicle of death by war, fatal accident, natural disaster or crime: Only Sports and (paradoxically) Obituaries are consistently more about life than death. On the bus, some traditionalist may be reading a cozy murder mystery. Other people are deep in a legal or technological thriller, its plot driven by actual or threatened death.

Death: The subject, apparently, is endlessly thrilling.

The newspaper, the mystery novel and the thriller all offer the comfort of something predictable in form: the deaths they describe may differ interestingly in detail, but the tone and structure are reassuringly repetitious. After the predictable serves its purpose, it can be tidily forgotten.

The aim of poetry (and the higher kind of thriller) is the opposite: to be unexpected and memorable. ] So a poem about death might treat it in a way that combines the bizarre and the banal: the Other Side as some kind of institution -- a creepy hospital, an officious hotel or retirement home. Martha Rhodes takes such an approach in "Ambassadors to the Dead," from her abrupt, unsettling, artfully distorted, indelible new book Mother Quiet:

Ambassadors to the Dead

They're pleased we've come.

Sweets? they offer,

trays of earthened fingers, syrupy.

Join us for a walk. Do.

We've traveled so far already

and what was familiar a moment before --

morphine-glazed now.

We've come to ask about our mother.

We know she'd like to see us. She visited our friend Maria

but not us. We don't understand why. We want to know where

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