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Last Words

by James Graham 

Posted: 28 March 2005
Word Count: 106

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Last Words

It's Molly's funeral this afternoon.
We saw her only the other day.

'And I was talking to (oh! oh!)...
old Mrs (oh, the name, the name)...'
- seizing her whole wispy head
with splayed-out hand, and shaking it
to dislodge the memory -

'And she told me that (oh!)
had passed away, sudden it was;
you'll ken him, aye him that used
to stay at (oh!) (oh! oh! the name!)...'

We had a brief laugh in the car
(being half-way there ourselves)
before going on to Sainsbury's.

That's how it goes:
you laugh at the old folk,
and next thing you know,
they're dead.

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Comments by other Members

joanie at 20:38 on 28 March 2005  Report this post
Brilliant, James. I love anything which is carefully observed and painfully true. The reference to Somerfield's is just right, I think.


Pressed the wrong button - I hadn't finished! It's personal, but this is exactly my sort of thing. I thoroughly enjoyed the read.


Ambitions of Lisa at 21:06 on 28 March 2005  Report this post
I really enjoyed this.... it brought to mind several elderly relatives and was very true to form of how it really is.

tinyclanger at 10:30 on 29 March 2005  Report this post
seizing her whole wispy head
with splayed-out hand, and shaking it
to dislodge the memory

Brilliant lines James, simple and yet so telling.
In fact that's what I'd say about the whole piece, its almost deceptivly simple, yet paints a realistic, bittersweet picture. At first I wasn't sure about the brackets, as they interrupted my flow when reading but as I ve read it they've grown on me, they create almost interjections which add focus and give depth. And I like the use of them at the end when describing yourself, bringing out the universality of ageing.

Mac AM at 10:34 on 30 March 2005  Report this post
When I read this, it felt like all the overheard conversations of all the funerals I’ve ever been to condensed into a poem. The title is intriguing because it invokes so many ideas – the last words said for Molly, the hinted-at humour of perhaps having the last word and the recognisable humour/frustration of forgotten names (depending on perspective), so that in the some sense the last words are lost too.

My Dad used to talk in thingamies wotsits, u-jars, and I miss those conversations.

I enjoyed the clipped sentences in the opening couplet – very matter of fact and on-the-edge-of-the-action! Then we have two careful stanzas that reveal a memory and the conversation that ensued. At first reading I wasn’t sure about the exclamations in brackets, but by stanza three, I was in the conversation and they seemed perfect. On further reading, I was looking forward to them, the happiness, the pleasure that was containing in them.

I loved that you had her shaking their head, with splayed-out hands as if memories were ball bearings to be dislodged – it really captured the eccentricity of the moment. The accent worked so well too – I use northern accents a lot when quoting something someone has said because I think it draws people into the anecdote better (I am from Manchester – not just picking on northerners).

I had one concern, I wasn’t entirely sure about the order of events. My interpretation is that stanzas two and three relate to the other day when you met Molly and gave her a lift because it was on the way or whether the trip in the car was to the funeral itself. My preference is for the first because of the final stanza,and becasue otherwise it would bring in another person to confuse the issue, but please put me right on this – it could read either way.

Bringing in the trip to Somerfield’s helps ground the poem again, so that I was prepared then for the final stanza, and a returned to the more clipped matter-of-fact language.

you laugh at the old folk,
and next thing you know,
they're dead.

I loved your terminology – you laugh at the old folk somehow the old folk sounds colloquial, inclusive so that I got the sense that you aren’t poking fun, but marking something that is in fact, the way of the world.

A great read James. I loved it.


Ticonderoga at 13:23 on 30 March 2005  Report this post
Real, plain, unvarnished, all too familiar. I'm going to have the unconscionable temerity to suggest a CHANGE!!!!!!! Gulp.............this is probably more me than you, so forgive me, but, how about:

and the next thing you know,
you're dead.

(Dinna gub me, mister!)



Mac AM at 15:47 on 30 March 2005  Report this post
Sorry Mike, but I have to disagree. For me the poem is about the transient nature of old age. The poem is packed with the absent-mindedness, the frailty, so the last line needs to remain as it is, or that message is lost or at least diluted.


James Graham at 20:27 on 30 March 2005  Report this post
Mac, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I see how you could be in doubt as to the order of events. The middle three sections of the poem are all 'the other day'. Actually the 'story' of the poem is partly fictional. My wife and I did meet Molly in the street. We didn't give her a lift because she was waiting for a bus and was going somewhere different. She was talking about someone else who had died; we live in a small town and would probably have known who she meant if she had managed to remember his name! We took our leave as the bus was coming and got into the car to go on to the supermarket. Our conversation in the car was about getting old and how we're a bit like that ourselves already, and things can only get worse. Later the thought occurred to me: you meet people in the street (I'm thinking especially of old people) and natter for five minutes about nothing much, and then another day you meet them again and do the same. Then one of these times turns out to have been the last. That last conversation was no more profound than any of the previous ones.

But what's fictional about the poem is that Molly is still going strong! It was a case of 'what if?' combined with similar experiences of hearing about an old person's death not long after having spoken to them. So Molly is a fictional name - it didn't seem right to use the lady's real name since she's still alive!

This lady isn't a friend of the family, by the way; in a small town you tend to know people for no other reason than the fact that you run into them quite often.

Mike, your lines are every bit as true as mine. 'You're' is lurking in the shadows behind that last line - but I think I'll leave it there just for now!

Thanks also, tc, Lisa, Joanie.


Tina at 07:21 on 31 March 2005  Report this post
Hi James

i have just come to this this morning and read it through and the comments above a few times.Clearly a lot has been said already - so I will not repeat.

What I like about this is the simplicity of the 'chance' meeting. I like its fragility, and blatant honesty wrapped up in the um er ar's. This kind of idiosyncratic behaviour is too often used for humour.

The lines I like the most are:

We had a brief laugh in the car
(being half-way there ourselves)

because they are the reminder that old age and death are a path we all travel towards which makes this 'personal' irrespective of our families or friendships.

Thanks for this James I enjoyed it


engldolph at 10:55 on 03 April 2005  Report this post
hi James,

Right on the mark with this one.

Catches that "strangeness" about the line between life and death -- here one day, gone the next; with just the echos of conversations (loved the oh! oh! - tip of your tongue signifier of old age) and the memory of someone's idiosyncratic movements (the hands shaking head to try and dislodge a thought) -- when I remember my mother, who passed away some years ago -- it is the dancing of her hands that is one of the most distinct memories -- I think this is universal.

I liked the way you have a definitive summarizing last stanza -- clarifies the theme of the piece without being over-laden or moralistic..that encourages the reader to go back and pull together the narrative a second time..and a third ...it's a very effective/satisfying "circling" technique(not sure if his has a technical name)

As Mac has said, I think the narrative could be read in a diffferent ways..
My initial read was that you remembered your last encounter with her... then the --

We had a brief laugh in the car
(being half-way there ourselves)
before going on to Somerfield's.

was you driving back from her funeral ... the brief laugh being about a fond memory/and the realising you are half way to way she is now.. and Somerfield's being a place for the wake... (not living in Scotland, I'm not familiar with Somerfields)..
I have a feeling from the notes above, that this was not in your mind...but in the end I don' t think it matters...

Likewise, in the second line: We met her only the other day.
The word "met" had me thinking this was the first time you had encountered her. Rather than We "saw" here only the other day.... "met" is more a northern/Scottish term I think..

I was also wondering if "with splayed out hand" added anything to the image already establshed with "seizing her whole wispy head" (I already see the hands)

I think though my conclusion is that the exact line of the narrative is not so relevant, because of the energy and dialogue and the wonderfully distilled and effective last stanza (which has to remain with "they're dead" not "you're" --as you say, the "you're is lurking beneath where it should be.

Caught by this very much.

James Graham at 11:25 on 12 April 2005  Report this post
Thanks, Tina and Mike, for your comments. I've changed 'met' to 'saw'. In Scotland we do talk about having 'met' someone when we mean 'saw' or 'ran into'. So, in the Scottish idiom, we met Molly one day as we were on our way to get the messages*. To put 'saw' instead of 'met' is a tiny tweak but it could make a difference.

I toyed with changing 'Somerfields' to 'Sainsburys'. Is this a choice any poet has made before? In fact, I've just done it, because maybe Somerfields is less well known as a supermarket! But I'll probably change it back as Somerfields has a whimsical suggestion of summer fields about it. It would be nice to think that Molly, good old soul, has 'gone on to summer fields'. Very whimsical.

The glitch about whether the wee laugh we had was after the funeral actually illustrates, in a way, one of the problems there can be with verse-writing, especially if the poem has a narrative content or is based on a particular personal experience. If you're writing a short story there's room to indicate time and place, but a poem leaves so much for the reader to fill in. Some of this can be profound subtexts and levels of meaning and such, but it can just as easily be a simple thing like when and where something is supposed to have happened.


*Get the what? Another Scotticism gratuitously thrown in here to create even more confusion: 'get the messages' means do the food shopping. Fortunately this expression isn't in the poem.

eanna at 23:04 on 24 October 2005  Report this post
"oh! oh! the name" great! and then off to sainsburys. If that is not real then nothing is.

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