25 Death Poems

Edited and Introduced by Michael H. Lester
I wish to thank M. Kei for allowing me the opportunity to guest edit the Special Feature, 25 Death Poems for Atlas Poetica and all the poets who submitted their best tanka for the Special Feature. It was truly an embarrassment of riches and a difficult matter to choose only 25 tanka for inclusion in the Special Feature. The poems I have selected for this Special Feature examine death from the viewpoint of an individual’s reckoning with their own death, as opposed to the death of a loved one or death in general.

There are many ways to look at death and dying — with fear and apprehension, with courage, with humor, with anger, with sadness, with gratitude, with relief, and even with indifference. The poems I selected from the many fine poems I received for this Special Feature represent a cross-section of these viewpoints. Within the emotional aspect of death and dying, these poems also examine the thoughts the poets have about what happens to us, to our essence, after death.

There are as many as six elements in Zen Buddhism, including earth, water, air, fire, space, and consciousness. While we are living, we experience all six of these elements. At death, according to our stated wishes, the living may bury us in the earth or scatter our ashes at sea, some of which might find their way into the air and the great void.

The Zen monks sought, through study, meditation, and devotion to a pure life, to achieve the highest level of consciousness — enlightenment. But after death, what of consciousness — the sixth element?

In homage to Ryokan, the beloved Zen poet Buddhist monk, who lived for years as a wandering beggar, and then as a hermit in a mountain hut where he spent countless hours moon gazing, flower plucking, and playing with children, I offer this death poem.

when I die
give my tattered robe
to the mountain
leave my begging bowl
hidden in the tall grass

Here is Ryokan’s actual death poem, as recorded by his caregiver and kindred soul, the nun poet Teishin, just before his death . . .

now it reveals its hidden side
and now the other — thus it falls,
an autumn leaf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ry%C5%8Dkan
Hoffmann, Yoel (translator). Japanese Death Poems. Tuttle, 1986. ISBN 0-8048-3179-3 p 268.

and written as a five-line tanka . . .

now it reveals
its hidden side
and now the other — 
thus it falls
an autumn leaf

Perhaps, Ryokan revealed his hidden side as well as his visible side during his lifetime. Ryokan’s death poem seems indifferent to death and does not examine what happens after death.

Like most poets past and present, Ryokan much revered the moon, which he often gazed upon through his hermitage window and wrote about in his poems. Yet, the moon never revealed its hidden side to Ryokan, and with its almost infinite lifetime was probably not the best subject for a death poem.

One of my favorite singer songwriters, Cat Stevens, now Yusuf Islam, wrote this song about the transience of life, Oh Very Young, which opens with these words.

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time
You’re only dancin’ on this earth for a short while

and written as a five-line tanka . . .

Oh very young
what will you leave us
this time
You’re only dancin’ on this earth
for a short while

Of the 25 death poems I selected for this Special Feature, most conveyed a sense of acceptance, many faced death with humor, and a few explored other aspects of our relationship with death, including Zen philosophy, and the how, when, where, and why of death.

I open the selection with a question posed in a death tanka by Michael G. Smith:

Has Zen taught you
anything about dying?
she eventually asked
sprung on me
like a snare

This paradoxical approach to death framed in a question from, perhaps, a loved one seems like a good way to approach the collection. Someone who has spent years studying Zen would seem to have a healthy and enlightened view of death, but the sudden trap laid upon him catches him off guard. Is the narrator dying? What does the narrator know about dying? What does anyone know?

The next poem in the collection, written by Autumn Noelle Hall, seems to have an answer to this question, an enlightened, Zen-like view of death, which is why it follows Michael’s death poem:

like Heron, my Death
who waits with infinite
patience
and sees this living world
for the reflection it is

Is life a dream? Of what is the living world a reflection? Is this the Heron of the Greek myths — a messenger, a shaman? If so, is the message death? Is it the Egyptian Heron associated with death and rebirth? Autumn gives us plenty to think about even as she attempts to answer the question.

In the following selections, I seek to progress from the question of death itself, to how the poet might die, the inevitability of death, the afterlife, what the poet would like done with their remains, their legacies, whether they might go to heaven or hell, and finally the question of when death will come.

Peter Jastermsky, in his poignant death poem, reminds us that death can come at any time and we may not see it coming:

opened or closed,
our eyes may not see
the end approaching
that day we didn’t know
would be our last

Although Peter does not state it explicitly, I believe this is an admonition to be thankful for every day and to live life to the fullest.

And finally, Ed Bremson’s vision of the most beautiful way to go gently into that good night (apologies to Dylan Thomas):

dreaming
of snow . . .
walking
deeper and deeper
into the woods

It has been a pleasure and an honor to read the death poems from so many fine tanka poets. I regret I could not include all of the death poems that warranted inclusion in this Special Feature.

In closing, I offer one final death tanka . . .

when they say
death is on the horizon
take comfort
for the horizon
is but an illusion

with gratitude,
Michael H. Lester


1) Michael G. Smith

Has Zen taught you
anything about dying?

she eventually asked
sprung on me
like a snare


2) Autumn Noelle Hall

like Heron, my Death
who waits with infinite
patience
and sees this living world
for the reflection it is


3) Kathryn J. Stevens

captive of the wind
a tumbling thistle births life
as it dies
moon shadows wash over
the dreaming wasteland


4) Eve Castle

after countless tears
my eyes fall upon a dogwood
in bloom
 — so brief those soft petals
alive below a golden moon


5) Sandra Renew

should I rug up warmly
for this last adventure or strip naked
under a sheet?
take my favourite shirt
with me


6) Pat Geyer

in time
the scythe will arc
right to left . . .
i will fall
to sleep


7) Gerry Jacobson

this body-mind
really knows what to do
knows when to rest
and when to sink
deep into the earth


8) Denis M. Garrison

broken and torn by
this dark and stony track . . .
my race never ends
but ahead,
endless green meadows


9) Debbie Strange

bind my body
with spanworm silk
lay me down
in a shaded garden
until I turn to earth


10) Genie Nakano

let me
be a raindrop
falling
deep into the earth
wild flowers in the spring


11) Wendy C. Bialek

bury me
beneath a bergamot tree
scatter black walnuts
so bright eyes might see
the stash in the tall grass


12) Pris Campbell

toss my ash
off the Seven Mile Bridge
with luck the tide
will carry me to places
I once sailed free


13) M. Kei

stitch my shroud
tie granite to my ankles
bury me
deep in the heart
of the Chesapeake


14) Christine L. Villa

I don’t mind
being cremated
just make sure
they don’t burn me
alive


15) Azim Khan

white
it has to be
and of plain cotton,
worms will embroider
them as they please


16) Julie Bloss Kelsey

don’t embalm me
let me rot
in this pine box — 
grow a rose bush
through my belly


17) Susan Burch

how long
before I’m one
of the forgotten . . .
another smooth bud
on the pussywillow


18) Susan Constable

eyes focused — 
on the furthest hill
my footprints
nothing more than dust,
my voice a dying echo


19) Nu Quang

if I go first
don’t cry, dear
just remember to offer me
frozen durian
on my death anniversary


20) Kath Abela Wilson

in case I die tonight
while sleeping
my childhood precaution
leaving the flowers in my hair
so they know who I am


21) Carol Raisfeld

on this journey
are heaven and hell
one breath away . . .
is it a flip of the coin
or a predestined stay?


22) Joy McCall

it is the cold
of the grave I dread — 
almost I crave
the warm crackling
of the hearth-fires of hell


23) Joanne Morcom

it doesn’t seem right
to die in the springtime . . .
better to pass away
in the autumn months
when the world’s golden


24) Peter Jastermsky

opened or closed,
our eyes may not see
the end approaching
that day we didn’t know
would be our last


25) Ed Bremson

dreaming
of snow . . .
walking
deeper and deeper
into the woods


Biographical Sketches

Michael H. Lester is a CPA and attorney living in Los Angeles, California. Passionate about short-form poetry, Michael’s poetry has been widely published in prestigious poetry journals and has won numerous awards. Michael recently published an illustrated children’s book, Cassandra and the Strange Tale of the Blue-Footed Boobies, and self-published a book of poetry, Notes from a Commode – Volume I, both available on Amazon.com. You can reach Michael at and twitter: @mhlester.

Michael G. Smith’s poetry, haiku and tanka have been published in many literary journals. His books include No Small Things; The Dippers Do Their Part, a collaboration with artist Laura Young of haibun and katagami; and Flip Flop, a collection of haiku co-created with Miriam Sagan. The Oregon Poetry Association recently awarded second place to his poem Assemblage, The Anthropocene in their Spring 2019 contest in the Theme: Climate category.

Inspired by her favorite animated sequence, the ‘Tale of the Three Brothers’ from the film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Autumn Noelle Hall fully intends to “[greet] Death as an old friend and [go] with him gladly, departing this life as equals.”

Kathryn J. Stevens worked in marketing communications with IBM and before that with one of the divisions of The State University of New York at Albany. Her poems have appeared in a variety of online and print journals. She currently lives with her husband in Cary, North Carolina, USA.

Eve Castle is a poet and short story writer who connected with the tanka form of poetry in 2013. Her first tanka were published in Bright Stars, An Organic Tanka Anthology. Some of her longer work has been published in Illya’s Honey, Gravel Magazine, and Barbaric Yawp. Since 2009 she’s been a member of Gabe’s Poets, a Dallas-based writing group. Eve continues to develop her tanka practice. You can find her on Twitter @Eve_Castle.

Sandra Renew’s ongoing project is the interrogation of gender presentation and the LGBTIQAA gender discourses. Her poetry comments on contemporary issues and questions including war, language, environment, climate and the planet’s health, translation, border crossings, dissent, gender. Her work is informed by many years working in war zones, in Indigenous communities and on the fringes of heterosexuality.

Pat Geyer lives in East Brunswick, NJ, USA. Her home is surrounded by the parks and lakes where she finds her inspiration in Nature. Published in several journals, she is an amateur photographer and poet.

Gerry Jacobson lives in Canberra, Australia. He thinks of himself as a long-distance walker although his body may not really be up to it. He is a student of yoga, dance and meditation, and sometimes mixes up these pursuits. He has published in tanka journals.

Denis M. Garrison lives on Maryland’s Piedmont Plateau. Born in Iowa, he spent his childhood in Japan, his youth in Europe, North Africa, and the western Pacific. His poetry’s widely published in journals and anthologies. Garrison’s print poetry collections: First Winter Rain, Eight Shades of Blue, Hidden River, Sailor in the Rain and Other Poems, Fire Blossoms: The Birth of Haiku Noir, She Walked Among the Blossoms, and Barefoot on the River Stones.

Debbie Strange (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada) is a short form poet, photographer, and haiga artist. She is a member of the Manitoba Writers’ Guild and is also affiliated with several haiku and tanka organizations. Her first collection, Warp and Weft: Tanka Threads was published by Keibooks in 2015, and the sequel, Three-Part Harmony: Tanka Verses was released by Keibooks in 2018. Debbie maintains a publication archive at https://debbiemstrange.blogspot.com/ and tweets @Debbie_Strange.

Genie Nakano was born in Boyle Heights, East L.A. She is an award winning haiku and tanka poet and has written three books of poetry, available on Amazon.com. Currently she teaches, Tanka, Yoga and Zumba at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute. She writes a weekly poetry column for the Rafu Shimpoo and can be contacted at

Exposed to Tanka in 90’s by Jane Reichhold while sharing haiku on Shiki’s list, she still turns towards Tanka when her heart is heavy. Now Arizonian, Wendy C. Bialek with husband, two dogs, a hummingbird family, surrounding desert mountains, and magical, organic gardens, is never short of inspiration to photograph, paint or pen. Edited book . . . Anthology on Compassion, “this side of the fire” sparks global three-six liners prompted by last year’s California wildfires . . . available near 1st anniversary . . . proceeds benefiting victims.

The short forms of Pris Campbell have appeared in numerous journals, including Frogpond, cattails, Atlas Poetica, Acorn, Haigaonline, Skylark, A Hundred Gourds, and Failed Haiku. She has placed or been commended in a number of competitions. Seven collections of her free verse poetry and one book of tanka, Squall Line On The Horizon, have been published by the small press. A former Clinical Psychologist, sailor and bicyclist until sidelined by ME/CFS in 1990, she makes her home in Lake Worth, Florida with her husband.

M. Kei is a tall ship sailor and award-winning poet who lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He is the editor of Atlas Poetica : A Journal of World Tanka and Stacking Stones, An Anthology of Short Tanka Sequences. His most recent collection of poetry is January, A Tanka Diary. He is also the author of the award-winning gay Age of Sail adventure novels, Pirates of the Narrow Seas, available at www.atlaspoetica.org/buy-novels. He can be followed on Twitter @kujakupoet, or visit atlaspoetica.org.

Aside from being a recognized children’s writer, Christine “Chrissi” L. Villa is also an award-winning tanka and haiku poet published in respected online and print journals. Her collection of Japanese short-form poetry is entitled The Bluebird’s Cry. She is the founding editor of Frameless Sky — the first haiku and tanka video journal that is a collaboration of art, poetry, and music. She is also the founding editor of Velvet Dusk Publishing, a small printing press that publishes chapbooks or full-length books from established and emerging poets. www.christinevilla.com.

Azim Khan, from Pakistan, graduated from Peshawar University with Master degrees in English Literature. He worked with the United Nations World Food Programme as Head of Programme Unit in Peshawar providing humanitarian assistance in form of food aid to victims of war and natural disasters. He dedicates his death poem to his English teacher, Late Professor Daud Kamal. Numerous journals have published his haiku and tanka for which he has won many awards.

Julie Bloss Kelsey ponders death, gazes at clouds, and chases butterflies from her home in Germantown, Maryland. She enjoys writing tanka, haiku, cherita, haibun, and other short poetry forms. Visit her on Twitter (@MamaJoules).

Susan Burch is a good egg.

Susan Constable’s tanka have won several awards and have appeared in numerous international journals and anthologies. Her collection, The Eternity of Waves, was one of the winning entries in the 2012 eChapbook Awards, sponsored by Snapshot Press. She co-edited Ripples in the Sand (the Tanka Society of America’s 2016 anthology) and is currently a co-editor of Tanka Canada’s journal, GUSTS. She lives on the west coast of Canada.

Nu Quang is a published Japanese Short Form poet, whose haiku, haibun, tanka, and tanka prose were published in twenty-three journals worldwide, both in print and online. She was a contributor to ATPO at her height of writing tanka, and four of her tanka were published in the Summer 2019 issue. Even after she has ventured into screenwriting, she continues to write tanka, which appear in the Ribbons and the TSA Member Anthology. She currently lives in Seattle, WA, USA.

Kath Abela Wilson kept watch over her mother and also her former husband in a personal way observing last moments and the now of the experience of death, attentive to the spell cast, and lessons learned by such observation. The fountain is still flowing. The birds still drink. A leaf unfolds and then, helplessly, the silence, World Traveling lovebird, from Santa Barbara and Pasadena California becomes Placeless.

Carol Raisfeld lives in Atlantic Beach, a barrier island close to New York City. Her hobbies include sailing, chess, sculpting, painting and boxing. She holds US and foreign design patents in interactive toy design. Her poetry, art and photography appear worldwide in print and online journals. Carol is an anthologized poet and winner of international awards.

Joy McCall has been close to the pearly gates for some time but so far they are staying shut. She hopes they continue to do so for a while yet. She is one who ‘rages against the dying of the light’ (Dylan Thomas).

Joanne Morcom is a writer and social worker who lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She’s published four poetry collections and contributes to poetry anthologies and journals. She has grave concerns about writing death poems.

Peter Jastermsky writes short-form works, with a focus on haiku, senryu, haibun, and cherita. His writing has appeared in many print and online journals and anthologies. Peter and his family live in the high desert of Southern California with their cat and horse. Peter’s first haiku and senryu collection, Steel Cut Moon, is published by Cholla Needles Press.

Ed Bremson is an award-winning haiku poet, who has been published in various Japanese and English language journals. In 2017—2018 he was three times NHK Haiku Master of the Week on Japanese TV. He won prizes in the Kusamakura contest, Santoka contest, Bulgarian Cherry Blossom contest, as well as grand prize in the 2018 World Haiku Competition. Ed lives in Raleigh, NC, USA.

© 2019