When Joel Brouwer’s “Last Request” was published in his first (and only, to date) collection Exactly What Happened in 1999, it was one among many poems that surprised readers with a macabre subject and somewhat bizarre humor. With poem titles such as “Former Kenyan Parliament Member Arrested for ‘Imagining the Death’ of President Daniel Arap Moi,” “Astronomers Detect Water in Distant Galaxy,” and “Locking Up the Russian,” Brouwer shows his audience up front that he is not afraid to break the rules of formal or “expected” poetry. His work tackles any and all topics, and “Last Request” is a good example. Its subject is not only strange and funny but frightening and tragic as well.
In this poem, the speaker requests that, after he dies, his body be entombed in a cardboard pyramid and placed in the backyard at first, then taken to a dump and left among the stench of spoiled food and hungry flies buzzing about the piles of garbage. As odd and deplorable as this sounds, the speaker presents a good case for his request and does so in simple, honest, perfectly sane language—in spite of his obviously crazy desire. “Last Request” is funny in places, sad in others, and always surprising. This mixture of intriguing qualities is what makes Brouwer’s work stand out among the throng of young, contemporary American poets, and it is what makes this poem both delightful and depressing at the same time.
Brouwer prefaces the poem “Last Request” with a line he attributes to his father speaking about his own burial: “A pine box for me. I mean it.” Apparently, the older man would be content with a very simple, inexpensive interment, and he is adamant about it. The opening lines of the poem, then, present a stark contrast to the father’s request. The speaker, or son, does not want a pine box but “a pyramid” when he dies, and he informs his “friends and family” about his request “for the record.” Lines 1 and 2 provide the basis for a poem that becomes a list of instructions on how the speaker wants to be buried.
The pyramids of ancient Egypt represent a glorification of life after death, in particular the lives and deaths of pharaohs. Pyramids were built as monuments to house the tombs of the powerful, beloved kings, and death was seen as merely the beginning of a journey to the other world. In ancient Egypt, an individual’s eternal life depended on the continued existence of the king, making the pharaoh’s tomb a vital concern for the entire kingdom. But the speaker in “Last Request” is not a powerful ruler, and he humbly acknowledges this by asking for a modest pyramid: “A small one is fine,” and it is all right to “build it / out of cardboard.”
If the poem has not seemed bizarre enough at this point, these four lines are convincing of its odd subject. Here, the speaker admits that he does not want a sturdy, permanent burial place but rather one that will “fall down a lot.” He okays the use of “duct tape / or school glue”—again two common, meager products that are in direct contrast to what one normally thinks of when considering a real pyramid. The Great Pyramid of Giza, today a part of Greater Cairo, Egypt, is the oldest yet only surviving “wonder” of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. This pyramid houses the tomb of Khufu (Cheops) and took over twenty years to build—hardly in line with the cardboard structure the poem’s speaker requests. It is doubtful, too, that King Khufu went to his grave unclothed, for pharaohs were buried with most of their royal possessions to use in the afterlife. The speaker, however, humbly states, “Lay me in there naked.”
These lines indicate a slight turn in the speaker’s modest, obliging request to his family and friends. He is making his funeral and burial cheap for them, but “whatever the weather,” he wants them to “wait outside all night.” The thought here is both...
(The entire section is 1,473 words.)