She combed his hair
Before she would let them
Put his corpse in the ambulance
And asked that his face not be covered
Until out of her sight.
Go to Venice, stupid.
The Afterlife is a calm, sweetly melancholic lyric, which describes one final act of connubial tenderness—a wife combs her dead husband’s hair before seeing his body off in an ambulance. The poem is only seven lines long, but it contains one of the most dynamic, forceful, and daring turns that I’ve ever encountered in a poem. The turn comes in the penultimate line, and is abrupt and startling. The poet addresses the reader directly, emphatically: “Go to Venice, stupid.” The shift in tone, diction and mode of address is so disquieting; it almost feels like a violation. The move is reminiscent of Rilke’s famous turn in his Archaic Torso of Apollo, which ends with the admonition: “You must change your life.” The differences, however, are significant. Where Rilke is breezy, detached and philosophical, Rice is brazen, confrontational and pugnacious. You must change your life, all right, and I’m going to tell you just how to do it. This is a profoundly American poem: the voice is demotic, and after the turn, a little coarse; death and sentimentality are cunningly wedded; but perhaps most tellingly, the poem is pragmatic. Rice is unafraid to give advice (“Go to Venice, stupid.”), but he softens his command, and ends his poem, with an affectionate gesture of compassion: “Hurry.”
“The Afterlife” by Stan Rice, from Red to the Rind, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002