Review by Joey Madia
Just prior to this review, I reviewed another, much different book on the misconceptions and myths surrounding the survival of consciousness after the death of the physical body. Dr. Terry Gordon’s No Beginning… No End is written from the point of view of a crisis cardiologist with a highly spiritual focus. Anthony David Vernon’s The Assumption of Death, while also highly spiritual, is written by a poet. In place of case studies, we have meditations on classic works on death. Instead of a physician’s scalpel, we have a poet’s. Together, the two books prove that, from numerous angles, death as conceived and sold by religion and the medical field is by and large a lie and, in the words of Ram Dass, “Dying is perfectly safe.”
The poems in this collection vary in length from a few lines to several pages of poetic prose. These longer poems are sometimes presented as parables. The opening poem is in many ways representative both structurally and thematically:
Existence is a chain
Its links are life and death
Its materials depend on the welder
The closing line of the second poem, “The Most Common Assumption,” lays out the meat of the matter: “Yet, the idea that to live is to die is neither unquestionable nor based upon ubiquity but rather assumption.”
There are abundant instances where there is footnoted source material. For instance, the quote in the second poem is a response to John Stuart Mill’s “All men are mortal.” Other examples of source material come from Spinoza, Epicurus, Dylan Thomas, and Banksy.
The third poem, along with others, operates almost as a koan, drawing on classic koans to make its case:
“A spider must work with the web they weave
Falling trees do not care who hears them”
In the poem “Candles,” the finite nature of the “wick and wax” recalls comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell’s crucial question: “Are you the lightbulb or the light?”
Some of the poems are Aesopian in nature, such as “The Parrot and the Crow,” offering fables for a different kind of contemplation than that offered by a koan.
One of the longer poems is a position piece called “Funerals are for the Living.” I happen to agree. The dead no longer care. Those who grieve for lost love ones are grieving for themselves.
An ongoing thematic piece, with poems interdicted, revolves around the prophet Elisha and his teacher, Elijah, who was “transported directly into eternity via a flaming whirlwind without death.” As a side note, there are researchers who study the bible from the point of view of these instances being proof of interstellar travelers and spaceships. In one of these pieces, which Vernon spreads throughout the collection, Elijah speaks with a crow after fasting for twenty-two days. He follows the crow to the Tigris and Euphrates, where he drinks and eats his fill, and then journey’s on to Babylon to confront its priests about their death cults prior to vanishing in the whirlwind.
Returning to Joseph Campbell, he once said that the two most useless things to feel are regret and guilt. Vernon looks at guilt through a slightly different, and compelling, lens in “Guilt Is A Pleasure.” Having grown up Catholic (Roman, no less) I have seen abundant evidence of the dangers of guilt as addiction. Carnage often prevails.
Several poems consider the dangers of immortality, predicated on the notion that in order to be immortal, one must first die.
Given current world events, which are the result of a handful of powerful men suffering from the mental illness of greed the native tribes call wetigo and Europeans personify as Mammon ruthlessly inflicting unimaginable horrors on large populations, I suggest reading “The Treaty” several times. When you get to the end, you’ll see what I mean, as well as the sense it contains.
Of a piece with the idea of wetigo is the one-line poem “Serpent!”: “Did you eat what you convinced others to consume?” Following the thread of war—the needless bringer of mass physical death—you can also compare it with Abbie Hoffman’s only partially sarcastic advice that all wars would end if there was compulsory cannibalism: if you kill them, you eat them.
One of the longer pieces, “Grasping Death,” presents statistics from polls and has seven footnotes. Here, Vernon is expanding on what poetry can be (as well as following in the footsteps of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland), which not only strengthens the themes of the work, but opens up possibilities for poets shackled to the canon and the workshop feedback effect of finding it unrewarding to take chances because most of their fellow attendees do not.
Similar to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Vernon uses anaphoric repetition in “Luster and Life,” starting nearly every sentence with either “You’re” or “You’ve.” Although this collection is not generally reminiscent of the Beats, the theme of death certainly does invoke Ginsberg, Burroughs, and most especially Gregory Corso.
Appropriately enough, Vernon give the almost final word to Socrates, as recorded by Plato: “No one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good.” One has to wonder if this was on the great philosopher–teacher’s mind as he drank the hemlock as punishment for expanding his students’ minds.
After quoting Plato, it is fitting that Vernon ends the collection with a poem titled “The Cave,” which involves Elisha, Elijah, the people of Babylon, and a dragon named Bel. This poem-parable illuminates the power of “I am”—even suggesting that it has the power to bring the mighty Nephilim to their knees.
This final message of The Assumption of Death—that the “I am” is eternal, transcendent, personal, and universal—is perhaps its most powerful and certainly secret weapon in proving that almost all of the prevailing assumptions of death are dangerously, breathtakingly wrong.
TITLE: The Assumption of Death
AUTHOR: Anthony David Vernon
PUBLISHER: Alien Buddha Press, 2022