Photo by Steve Johnson

E.M. Forster’s definition of plot is less about plot
than the length of narrative you drag around.
You hear it all the time: after sixty years of marriage,
one dies of something more or less tangible,
and months later, the other. When you go, I’ll follow
but not too closely. They wrote strong on my chart
when my heart stopped keeping time, and when
for ten full minutes I couldn’t speak or name the faces,
and when, new mother, I cut the pills and daily
swallowed those half-moons the way I’d swallow
anything to stop the mind’s engine running
till it smoked. In obituaries, the dead are survived
by the living. If I survive you, I’ll be haunted
for years, hauling our story up and down stairs,
across dog-clawed oak floors. I’ll pull it through
the streets we walked, naming the trees: tulip poplar,
paper birch, pin oak. I’ll coil it and heave it into bed
each night. If I’m the last of us, my long white hair
will be so heavy, heavy and thick as rope, I won’t cut it.

Photo:“Queens”by Steve Johnson ; licensed under CC BY 2.0 Click here to read Maggie Smith on the origin of the poem.

Maggie Smith: “The King Died and Then the Queen Died” was inspired by E.M. Forster’s famous quotation about story vs. plot: “The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then the queen died of grief is a plot.” I’d read a news story about a man dying and his wife dying soon after—within hours, if I remember correctly—and I thought about my own husband. I thought about the story of marriage, and how it’s something the surviving spouse must carry and tend to. I’m no good at love poems, so this might be the closest I’ve gotten to writing one—and, go figure, it’s about death! (Cue sad trombone sound effect.)

Maggie Smith
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