The Undertaker’s Rollercoaster
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Patricia Smith’s poem “Undertaker” is a sample of a Dramatic poem. A dramatic poem is a very emotional piece of literature. The Dramatic poem is written to be presented to a live audience. “Undertaker” is also considered a “Slam” poem. Slam poems are Dramatic poems that are read to a silent listener or, more often, an audience and are read forcefully and with great passion to induce the audience to “feel” the words. As with “Undertaker,” many Dramatic/Slam poems are made into short plays or films giving its audience the full effect of the written work. In “Undertaker,” Smith addresses the myriad of thoughts and emotions that go on in the mind of this man as he deals with this difficult job day to day. Compassion, empathy, anger, and hopelessness is the emotional rollercoaster the Undertaker boards every day.
There are three characters in the Undertaker, the boy, his mother, and the Undertaker. The boy, the center of attention in this poem, is young and has cut his life short due to choices that he has made. The mother, though it is not stated, is most likely a single mom who feels that she has done her best to raise her boy. The emotions that come out in the poem suggest that she feels that her son, like all the other sons before, is innocent and should not be where he is. The Undertaker, our main character, seems to have gotten callused by so many short lived lives that have crossed his shiny tables. He wants to see the violence, that brought this young man to his early death, stop and to be able to carry on a “normal” undertaker’s life.
What is unspoken in the writing is that the Undertaker has this job, a service to his community, of preparing the deceased for burial. The underlying thought or feeling is that this is a necessary work and that normally I (the undertaker) should be preparing old people who have lived out their lives and have just died of old age or maybe the occasional younger person who met an early death through disease or accident. But, the day for this Undertaker is filled with senseless deaths due to drugs, and other gang activity. They keep getting younger and the job keeps getting harder. Facing the mothers, feeling their pain, crying inside with them yet having to put on the business face, because this is, after all, a business, is becoming almost too hard to do. The rollercoaster ride is getting more difficult day by day.
The poem starts with, probably, the most dramatic illustration of the whole poem; “When a bullet enters the brain, the head explodes” (Smith, Patricia 182). It seems that in this one statement the Undertaker wants to express to the mother the condition that her baby boy is in. He wants her to understand the daunting task that he has ahead of him. By this statement, he is suggestion to her that she should not expect a whole lot. Smith does a beautiful job of painting a picture of the scene as we see in lines 2-10:
I can think of no softer warning for the mothers
Who sit doubled before my desk,
Knotting their smooth brown hands, and begging, fix my boy, fix my boy.
Here’s his high school picture.
And the smirking, mildly mustachioed player
In the crinkled snapshot
Looks nothing like the plastic bag of boy
Stored and dated in the cold room downstairs.
One can see the scene as though it is before their eyes. A young mother sitting at the Undertaker’s desk, sobbing as she rocks back and forth wringing her hands yearning to have her boy back yearning to see him like he was in the picture.
In lines 17-19 and 27-31, the emotion changes from that of compassion and empathy to that of “getting down to business”. “So I swallow hard, turn the photo face down and talk numbers instead” (Smith, Patricia 182). The stark reality is that the Undertaker is in a business and is not a charity. He seems to have to corral himself in from the raw emotions that are saturating the scene almost in a desperate attempt to save himself from falling into the black hole of sorrow and despair that dominates the other side of his desk. The rollercoaster ride continues with nowhere to stop and get off.
In lines 34-41, The Undertaker’s thoughts wonder as we transition from “getting down to business” to the daunting task of piecing the puzzle back together:
…bent over my grisly puzzle pieces, gluing, stitching, creating a chin with a brushstroke.
I plop glass eyes into rigid sockets,
Then carve eyelids from a forearm, an inner thigh.
I plump shattered skulls, and paint the skin to suggest warmth, an impending breath.
I reach into collapsed cavities to rescue
a tongue, an ear. Lips are never easy to recreate
What a daunting task indeed, to create something out of nothing. The Undertaker knows that he cannot recreate life but he feels that he must work diligently to put this boy back together. As we continue to read from lines 42 -64, one would since that the Undertaker has performed this task more than he really cares. The underlying since seems to suggest that the Undertaker would rather be preparing the body of an old person who has lived out their life and has come to the end of the body’s expectancy. He would rather be preparing the body of a middle aged person who has passed do to disease or accident, even though that death would be hard to deal with also. But this, this is a needless death that seems to be repeating itself day after day. Through these lines you can sense the Undertaker’s despair as he rides this rollercoaster over and over with no hope of it ever stopping.
In line 68-74 the mood changes again as the Undertaker all of a sudden becomes angry and wants to carry the mother down to the cold storage to show the mother the harsh reality that is her son; a dead body, no life, no soul, just a dead fragmented body lying there awaiting its final destination:
Suddenly, I want to take her down to the chilly room, open the bag and shake its terrible bounty onto the gleaming steel table. I want her to see him, to touch him, to press her lips to the flap of cheek. The woman needs to wither, finally, and move on.
For a moment the Undertaker thinks that maybe this action would bring an end to the cycle of needless, premature deaths that he has intimately become a part of. He is angry that he Is the only one that has to deal with that part of this whole scenario but he feels that he is the least likely of anyone to be able to change what is going on. One can sense the Undertaker’s despair as he vents at this particular place in the writing.
Finally, in lines 74-78:
We both jump as the phone rattles in its hook.
I pray it’s my wife, a bill collector, a wrong number.
But the wide, questioning silence on the other end
Is too familiar. Another mother needing a miracle.
Another homeboy coming home.
the Undertaker is shocked back to reality with a phone call. We see the despair again as he hopes for something, anything, but another mama wanting her son “fixed”. The hope is dashed as the Undertaker recognizes the queer silence at the other end, the silence that has become all too familiar to him. The rollercoaster ride is starting all over again, there is no rest, there is no stopping.
One cannot experience the full effects of this poem without hearing it. Listening to Patricia Smith read this poem gives it life that you cannot experience by just reading it. One can feel the emotion and passion as the author reads with the original passion that inspired the work. Through her writing and reading of this poem one is able to experience the emotional rollercoaster that the Undertake experiences as he experiences it. Smith does such a great job that the work takes on the feel of a mind movie that you can “watch” as you both read and hear this excellent writing.
Patricia Smith. “Undertaker.” _Literature and Society:_ _An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Nonfiction_. Eds. Pamela J. Annas and Robert C. Rosen. 4th Ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2007. 182.
Patricia Smith. _Best of Nationals_. http://beemp3.com/download.php?file=1952924&song=Undertaker.