To the Mercy Killers, by Dudley Randall
If ever mercy move you murder me,
I pray you, kindly killers, let me live.
Never conspire with death to set me free,
but let me know such life as pain can give.
Even though I be a clot, an aching clench,
a stub, a stump, a butt, a scab, a knob,
a screaming pain, a putrefying stench,
still let me live, so long as life shall throb.
Even though I turn such traitor to myself
as beg to die, do not accomplice me.
Even though I seem not human, a mute shelf
of glucose, bottled blood, machinery
to swell the lung and pump the heart--even so,
do not put out my life. Let me still glow.
Who are the Mercy Killers? The speaker references them twice here; once in the title, and once more in the second line as "kindly killers." I only want to know because this killer can change the definition and the meaning of this poem (whatever it is) in a heartbeat. At the beginning of this poem, I thought the speaker was talking about an obvious higher power that holds the treasure of life and death over human beings. But the more I read on, the more I realized that this speaker sounds like he's speaking to himself instead of this higher power (God, Zeus, Buddha, whoever). Throughout the poem I picture this speaker sitting cross-legged on the ground, gathering bits of himself to collect his strength before some type of onerous challenge that could cost him his life.
The third sentence, which starts on line 9, was the first game-changer for me, when he says "Even though I turn such traitor to myself/ as beg to die, do not accomplice me" (lines 9-10). Who is he speaking to? Back to my imaginative scenario, it seems like he's talking to himself. He's reinforcing his mind to stay strong. "Do not accomplice me" refers to his more pessimistic, Debbie-downer side of him that always wants to give up, turn himself over…kill himself. This transforms the poem from a religious prayer of strength to a battle of inner ideologies, inner drives.
Of course, like all well-written poems and novels and stories, noticing this tone change wasn't a coincidence. Upon reading the footnotes, Randall wrote this poem like a Shakespearean sonnet (ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG). However, the iambic pentameter is lost after the second line…that is because combines this technique with an Italian model of structure, which is a separation between the first eight lines with the last 6 lines. The physical structure is Shakespearean, but the tonal structure is Italian. And guess where the tonal shift is here? Yes. Line 9.
So with all of this in mind, what is the tone of the first 8 lines? There is a paradox here in the first two lines; the first is the connection of mercy and killer. It's interesting that the title combines these two words, yet the first two lines deliberately separate the two. How does done kill out of mercy? The pain of life must be too overbearing, worse than death itself, the absence of being or feeling. So in a twisted way, the speaker pushes away mercy, does not wish for it to enter his own heart. The first four lines in general seem like the running monologue of anybody with a terminal condition, be it cancer or any type of disorder. The pain of life, for them, is not a blessing but a curse that can only be cured by death. But is pain better than "nothing"? The speaker continues with this motif of pain and suffering, and it seems to me that he prefers this pain over death. Even if the pain comes from "a clot, an aching clench," (line 5) and all these other horrible maladies, they are all simply reminders of the throb of life.
The tone shift starting in line 9 transitions from physical ways of dying and suffering to more mental weaknesses that may push someone to take his own life. This is where the duality of minds, of angel and demon, come into play with a person's desire to live or die. Even if he turns on himself to take his own life-- even if he thinks he is nothing to this world, as noted by his self-examination as "a mute shelf/ of glucose, bottled blood, machinery" (lines 11-12)-- this mindset of being 'nothing', death-like, can be revived with the glow of life, even if means pain and suffering.
You may think he's some self-deprecating, pathetic individual who can never put his life together. But don't we think about this all the time? Maybe not to this extent, but the question of life and death circulates in everyone, even if "life" and "death" aren't explicitly stated. When we are in pain, whether physical or mental, do we not think about getting better by stopping all this feeling? By putting the tears to a halt? And what better way to do this, if not to take your own life? Ok, so maybe that last question is over-stepping it a little bit. But for those poor souls who did take that next step into that type of questioning to take their lives probably went the opposite direction than Randall's poem. But that's why I love this poem so much; it is quietly powerful in its pain, and if I had the power to give each struggling, questioning person this poem to acknowledge the power they have over their own life (and why they should treasure it, not throw it away), it would give a fair amount of re-consideration and appreciation for the life that's given.