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Philip Larkin’s Koan

September 22, 2018

By Paisley Rekdal

Larkin never wrote a villanelle, but he featured in this one. Nor, though he wrote so much else about death, did he ever say that in a perfect universe we’d all be dead. It is the sort of thing he might have said, but death also terrified him. The koan I guess, a riddle without a solution, like the sound of one hand clapping.

Philip Larkin’s Koan

In the perfect universe of math it’s said
the world’s eternal aberration.
In fact, we should be less than dead,

math itself disrupted for matter ever to be read
as real. A thought so hard to fathom that The Nation
in its article on math has said

we lack the right imagination: the human head
will not subtract itself from the equation,
zero out the eager ego to be less than dead.

Did the numbers hunger for mistake, for fun upend
themselves to recalculate our infinite extinction?
And was existence meant for all, since it could be said

without our numbers others might have thrived:
the black rhinoceros, shortnose sturgeon—?
Articles of horn and scale both less and more than dead,

figurative dreams that now haunt us in our beds.
Memory’s another flaw in our equation. Was it The Nation?
I forget. Regardless, I know that someone said
in a perfect universe, we’d all be dead.

By Paisley Rekdal

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