It started out well enough. Doctor Seuss, how I loved thee! Say what you will about them, I loved green eggs and ham. And Shel Silverstein could do no wrong, of course. I was secretly convinced that I did not have wavy hair—I had straight hair and a wavy head. (In fact, I do … but that’s another story.)
I think it was around the time I first heard “The Cremation of Sam McGee” that I figured out something was wrong. Or rather, when I tried to show it to my friends.
For those of you who are neither Canadian nor blessed with clever teachers, “The Cremation of Sam McGee” is a poem by the Canadian poet Robert W. Service, published in his book The Spell of the Yukon in 1916. (You can read the full text of it here.) The poem is a dark little affair. Two gold prospectors are mushing their way through the Yukon Territory on their dogsled, and Sam McGee (who was “from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows—why he left his home in the South to roam ‘round the Pole, God only knows”) announces to his unnamed partner that he is about to die, and that he has one last request. Being a native of a warm climate, he really hates the chill of the Canadian wilderness, and he begs his friend to cremate his body rather than burying it in the frozen ground.
Sam then dies … and the horror show starts.
The poem’s narrator lashes the corpse to his sled and sets off in search of a crematorium. As he travels farther and farther afield, as the rations get lower and lower and the dogs begin howling eerily, the narrator begins losing his tenuous grip on reality. He talks and sings to Sam’s corpse, and hallucinates that it “hearkened with a grin.” Finally, he finds the wreck of a steamboat jammed in the ice of a frozen lake, and decides that he can cremate the body in the boiler. In a frenzy of activity, he tears up planks from the cabin floor and sets the boiler burning. When the fire is high enough, he stuffs the corpse into the makeshift oven and goes for a walk to avoid the sizzle of cooking flesh.
SPOILER ALERT—if you don’t want to know what happens, skip the next paragraph.
When the narrator returns to the ship, he opens the boiler door to check the progress of the cremation—and finds Sam sitting there, “cool and calm,” smiling broadly and asking him to close the door. It is, he says, the first time he’s been warm since he left Tennessee.
My father owns a first-edition copy of The Spell of the Yukon. Having been born on an isolated atoll in Alaska, he’s long felt an attachment to Service’s poetry about the northern wilderness he doesn’t actually remember. I was probably five or six the first time he read me “The Cremation of Sam McGee” as a bedtime story, growling the stanzas in his basso-profundo voice.
I laughed myself sick. I thought it was the funniest poem I’d ever heard. I laughed at the howling dogs, the singing to the dead body, everything. When I was old enough to be trusted with his books, I took The Spell of the Yukon to school and read the poem to any classmate who would listen. To a one, they were horrified … and at least half their horror of that poem was based on my reaction to it. Anyone who read this kind of sick stuff, they declared, let alone laughed at it, had to be some kind of psycho. It was judgments like this that made me so amazingly popular with my classmates.
I pretty much quit liking poetry around high school, when I was informed that grown-up poets, beginning in the mid-twentieth century, basically never let anything rhyme. Rhyming was outré, I was told, the mark of an unimaginative poet. Real poets did their work with single syllables and obscure literary and cultural allusions. They certainly never wrote poems about singing to corpses. Well, if that was poetry, I replied, then poetry wasn’t for me.
And then I went and found myself in the middle of a story that required a lot of it.
One of my side projects when I’m not working on Masks is a story that takes place a few years after the end of a highly destructive SF/fantasy war … and the shadow of a murdered general looms large over it. Although he’s dead before the story begins, his influence over my characters remains strong. I wanted a way to get into the general’s head after his death, but just having someone find his diary seemed like too much of a cliché even for someone who writes about superheroes. I did want my characters to discover something he’d written, though … and then I remembered my father reciting Rudyard Kipling and Robert Service. Suppose the general had written a few poems, had them bound privately in a book and given to a few cherished friends … and suppose one of my characters, who robbed the man’s house on the day he died, still had that rare volume?
But of course I couldn’t write poetry. I had been told this many, many times. For one thing, I insisted on making everything rhyme.
But the world I was writing was not the world I lived in. Perhaps poems rhymed there. And besides, generals are not poets, at least not usually. A man with old-fashioned literary tastes might prefer something with some rhythm to it, some music. And I began thinking of some other poems in The Spell of the Yukon--dark and forbidding pieces like “The March of the Dead”, lonely ones like “The Men That Don’t Fit In,” touching ones like “My Madonna,” which I once used as the basis for a short screenplay that got me my best-ever screenwriting grade.
And I remembered a particularly affecting little piece called “Unforgotten”, which seems to be about Constance Maclean, the woman whom Service loved to distraction and who married another man:
I know a garden where the lilies gleam,
And one who lingers in the sunshine there;
She is than white-stoled lily far more fair,
And oh, her eyes are heaven-lit with dream!
I know a garret, cold and dark and drear,
And one who toils and toils with tireless pen,
Until his brave, sad eyes grow weary — then
He seeks the stars, pale, silent as a seer.
And ah, it’s strange; for, desolate and dim,
Between these two there rolls an ocean wide;
Yet he is in the garden by her side
And she is in the garret there with him.
And I thought, maybe I have something here after all …