Hmm, turns out if you google ‘antidotes to fear of death’ the results you get are a mixture of the poetic/philosophical and the aggressively medical model. About sums it up I guess! Anyway, you can read this beautiful poem here. Caveats, though: the site authors have done that really irritating thing where they justify the lines centrally, which is not how the author wrote it (don’t know why places do that. Do they think it makes it more “poetic”, somehow? Annoying!) Plus the ‘a’ in the first line should be ‘an’.

Isn’t it beautiful, though? I love the magic realism in this poem: there’s the perfect ordinariness of lying on her back on one of ‘Those’ nights—’Those’ invites us in, assumes our knowledge of what ‘Those nights’ are like, and also suggests that they are a regular if not frequent occurrence; but then the not-ordinariness of ‘eat[ing]the stars’, which are ‘Pepper hot and sharp’. That dark can be ‘quenching’ is ambiguous: “good” quenching, as in a thirst quenched? “Bad” quenching, as in light or fire being extinguished? Or both?

Then Elson does a sort of total zoom out, and time expands incomprehensibly, as the universe must once have done: we are ‘stir[red]… /Into a universe still young/Still warm as blood’. Alive and dead; past and future; then, now and the then that will be the future: all space and time are conflated, ‘unconstrained by form’. It’s an extraordinary vision of expansion and merger which must owe much (as a lot of her poetry does) to her work as an astronomer and which is, indeed, a kind of antidote to fear. That we were all ‘always there’, even when we apparently weren’t, implies a way in which we will all ‘always [be] there’ even when we apparently aren’t.

This vision of time is so huge that you’d think we’d be dwarfed by it; but somehow that’s not how it is; or at least, it’s not a painful sense of our tininess. The implication is that death might be imagined as the experience of becoming ‘unconstrained’. This idea is then picked up in those final two stanzas, with the image of form as ‘husk’ and the notion that, liberated from it, all creatures might ‘[fly] off on bright wings’. The vision of the body as ‘like a treasure, like a chrysalis’—a place where magical transformation is prepared and undergone; the notion that our bones might then be ‘discarded’, like something once useful but now no longer needed: all this is so redemptive.

And Elson manages this without recourse to any kind of religious imagery: this is a scientist’s vision of eternity which is anything but clinical: which starts, after all, with the acknowledgement of feeling—the ‘fear of death’— but is not overwhelmed by it: which is ‘warm’ and not cold: which is ‘bright’ as well as ‘dark’.

Beautiful, beautiful. One to call to mind when we’re having one of ‘those nights’.