Papa Osmubal’s “A Bum’s Demise” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #10 of Cha, this poem was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010.)
Papa Osmubal’s “A Bum’s Demise” begins with ‘He is dead’ (L1), which reminds one of these lines from WH Auden’s “Funeral Blues”: ‘Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead / Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead’. Although Osmubal’s poem is a very different kind of elegy, it is one that finishes with a similar loving appreciation.
The deceased in Osmubal’s poem is a nameless bum, an unusual subject for tribute. At several points in the piece, the persona draws the reader’s attention to the difference between the bum and the rest of their group: ‘He left in mysterious and unexpected / fashion, leaving us all asking’ (L3-L4), ‘After weeks in a public infirmary, he showed up / much earlier than us all’ (L9-L10) and ‘”Man lives once, and dies once,” he said, / guffawing like he was mocking us all’ (L19-L20). The use of pronouns in these lines points to the “he vs. us” dynamics. Perhaps this distance is the result of the group’s admiration for the man; it is also possible that there is a sense of fear that they may follow him to the grave.
While it is suggestive that the bum is different from the other members of the group, it is clear in the poem that the persona and his pals care about him enough to feel intrigued by his death. They wonder if there was some rhyme or reason to it: ‘He left in mysterious and unexpected / fashion, leaving us all asking / And wondering as though his demise / was a riddle that needed answering’ (L3-L6). We are told that the tramp had been released from the infirmary the day before, and he had gone on one last overnight drinking binge only to die at dawn. The mystery is not so much the circumstances, as it is his motivation for giving up on life. Is his decision to leave the world based on something that happened to him in the hospital? After all, the first two lines of the poem are explicit about his troubled organ: ‘his liver turned / Hard and bone-dry like a stone’. Or does his determination to die arise from something else, a secret or the collective disappointments of a life?
The bum might not have been a rich person, as evidenced by his having used a public hospital, but he is hardly uncultured. At the beginning of his last night on Earth, we see him partying in style. When the others arrive at the scene, he is seen ‘reading Verlaine, reading / Poetry in his favourite corner, silently filling / his lungs with Havana cigar smoke’ (L10-L12). The reference to the French Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine provides some kind of clue to the background of the bum: Verlaine was also a bum of a sort, spending the latter years of his life in poverty plagued by alcohol and drug abuse. Osmubal’s character parallels the poet, and the depiction of his vices is somewhat romanticized: ‘a box of cigar’, ‘a glass with a generous whisky’, poetry, and an occasional woman, although that night he declines their company because he does not ‘want to be a father again’ (L16). One wonders why the bum is reading poetry and what poetry means to him — is he perhaps a failed poet? Or a failed scholar? Perhaps, without success of his own, he has slipped into alcoholism. Note the ‘again’ in “”Don’t give me girls tonight,” he blurted. / “I don’t want to be a father again!”” (L15-L16) suggests that firstly, the bum has a great sense of humour, and secondly, he might have previously sired at least one child — is he also a failed father? Do any of these offer an explanation for his generally depressing lifestyle?
The bum’s death comes at dawn ‘when the gang / felt they had had more than enough’ (L21-L22). In other words, he enjoyed his night by living, or rather dying, to the fullest, and bid farewell to the world at sunrise. The final stanza of the poem underscores that ‘He did not go the usual way, he went / towards where the sun was rising’ (L23-L24). Contrary to the normal symbolism of death being equated with darkness (think, for example, Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night“), for Osmubal’s bum it is the night of partying that stands for life, and the morning after is the time to die. It also suggests a new beginning and perhaps a sign of relief to be walking out of the darkness into the light. The word ‘usual’ — used two times previously: ‘The night before we were all late / for the usual overnight binge’ (L7-L8) and ‘As usual it was almost sunup when the gang / felt they had more than enough’ (L21-L22) — sets up a routine for the group. This pattern is broken by the bum’s death: ‘He did not go the usual way’. He went his own.1
That the bum did not go the usual way points to the sense that he was admired by the others in the poem. For them, he was an original, someone willing to leave this world on his own terms: ‘This man, one can say, did not know how / to live, but he sure was darn good at dying’ (L13-L14). The persona’s tone of respect and affection is unmistakable here. We will never know the reason the bum has decided to end his life at that point. However, the persona seems to revere this man who although has perhaps wasted his life, certainly knows how to go out in style. He indulged one last time, enjoying the beautiful things in life: his favourite piece of poetry, a box of cigars, whiskey with his friends and lastly, the stunning sight of sunrise.
Surely this is more than a bum’s demise.
1This reminded me of Nicholas Royle’s discussion of the death drive in The Uncanny (2003): ‘It is not just that deep down inside — whether we realise it or not, whether we like it or not — we all want to die. More precisely, we all want to die in our own way, on our own terms, according to our own trajectory, in accordance with ‘detoures’ of our own devising, in keeping with a certain ‘rhythm”. (93)
Papa Osmubal writes from Macau. His works, visual and literary, appear in numerous places, online and hardcopy, most recently in Bulatlat and Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k). He writes regularly foreK! (electroniKabalen / electroniKapampangan / electroniK…). He is currently working on a collection of modernist papercuts for his planned solo exhibition tentatively called ‘Nocturnal Voice’.