Death sticks out its tongue to the artist.

This is Hugo Williams‘ ‘Last poem’ from Dock leaves (Faber & Faber, 1994), a composition extraordinarily perceptive in what it has to say about self-portraiture, and being human.

As Williams tries to see and describe himself, all he manages to perceive are a mirror, a pumpkin and a feeble candle — elements traditionally associated with the vanitas, a XVII century genre of still-lifes containing reminders of change and mortality.

It might seem as if the poet is left speechless; yet, just as in the last lines “no sound emerges, only / The coming and the going of [his] breath,” the artist becomes all the more eloquent. What he has glimpsed in the mirror, without recognising it perhaps, is the symbol of his own mortality, sticking out its tongue to the artist.

Last poem

I have put on a grotesque mask
to write these lines. I sit
staring at myself
in a mirror propped on my desk.

I hold up my head
like one of those Chinese lanterns
hollowed out of a pumpkin,
swinging from a broom.

I peer through the eye-holes
into that little lighted room
where a candle burns,
making me feel drowsy.

I must try not to spill the flame
wobbling in its pool of wax.
It sheds no light on the scene,
only shadows flickering up the walls.

In the narrow slit of my mouth
my tongue appears,
darting back and forth
behind the bars of my teeth.

I incline my head,
to try and catch what I am saying.
No sound emerges, only
the coming and going of my breath.