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Of Grief & Poetry
There is a lot of grief in your poetry someone said after my reading in Victoria last week. I have been reflecting on this, more so since upon arrival in Vancouver the following day I was met with news that my brother passed away. This is the fourth death in my immediate family in the last eight years: I could double, probably triple that if I branched out into first cousins, aunts and uncles, not to mention friends. If there is a downside of having a big family and an even bigger extended family, this is it: you have more to love, but you also have more to lose. Of course that’s just family, tip your chin up and loss floods in…
As poets we are called upon to address these moments. It’s the lyric poets people are usually thinking of when they turn to poetry at these times. For me it begins with Donne, or Hopkins, not perhaps for the mournful but for the soothing sounds and exalted syntax. I might also turn to Paul Celan for the absolute force. When my mother passed away in the fall it was “Funeral Blues:”
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone…
I also think of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Rites for Cousin Vit”:
Carried her unprotesting out the door
Kicked back the casket-stand. But it can’t hold her,
That stuff and satin aiming to enfold her…
or any of Marilyn Hacker’s collections. This time the poem that came immediately was Juliana Spahr’s “Gentle” which begins:
We come into the world.
We come into the world and there it is.
The sun is there.
The brown of the river leading to the blue and the
brown of the ocean is there.
Salmon and eels are there moving between the brown
and the brown and the blue.
The green of the land is there.
Elders and youngers are there.
Fighting and possibility and love are there.
And we begin to breathe.
We come into the world and there it is.
We come into the world without and we breathe it in.
We come into the world.
We come into the world and we too begin to move
between the brown and the blue and the green of it.
There is something soothing about this poem that also gets at the largeness of life, the interconnectedness of all things. It’s very simple, but complicated in the way its seeing. It’s forceful and elegant.
There is a lot of grief in my poems. A section of my first book is called “Giving Shape to Grief.” I have tried various ways to write about death, to mark passings, which I imagine is also to write elegy. Those poems are highly condensed couplets. I’m never sure if I have even come close to succeeding with “elegy”. How to make a personal loss mean something to someone else? How to do something with language, to not feel bad about wanting to push a form, or language, while one is feeling grief.
Gone, I say and walk from church,
refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
letting the dead tide alone in the hearse.
It is June. I am tired of being brave.
And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in their stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.
Or “Little Father,” by Li-Young Lee
I buried my father
in the sky.
Since then, the birds
clean and comb him every morning
and pull the blanket up to his chin
I have been asked to speak for my siblings on such occasions. For my father I read a version of a story he had been working on. It was more like a prose poem and it was very moving to hear his voice. I have been asked for a poem for the death of a child, which is impossible to fathom either as an adult or a child. Of that I can only think of Stéphane Mallarmé’s A Tomb for Anatole which I excerpt here and trust Conjunctions has it right (it isn’t Paul Auster’s translation and I can’t replicate the indents accurately but here we go):
the highest aim
to part pure
you accomplish it
infant so that
This will be counted
part of your due–your kin
have bought the rest by their
suffering the loss forever
Cole Swenson sums up Mallarme’s beautiful long poem:
Not only is this a translation, but it’s a translation of something that was not considered a poem by its author, or at least not considered a finished poem. These five sections are from some 200 notes of similar length that Mallarmé made as he sat beside his young dying son. From a perspective of a hundred years, we can see how only such a fragmentary, stuttering composition could do justice to that grief. It’s an emotion that has been attempted by many other poets, most of whom failed because they insisted on finish, which necessarily belies the experience.
Considering my status as a poet identified in some quarters as innovative, or avant garde, loss and grief may seem an odd association, which is why those associations are so odd: “at a time when genre tends to divide poets—say, those who write sonnets and love poems, e.g., Seamus Heaney, and those who refuse traditional forms, e.g., Lyn Hejinian—the call of elegy overrides differences in school, nationality, style, and technique.”
Do we not all experience loss? Death? Who is to say what the appropriate approach to elegy is? I think of Etheridge Knight’s “The Bones of My Father”
There are no dry bones
here in this valley. The skull
of my father grins
at the Mississippi moon
from the bottom
of the Tallahatchie,
the bones of my father
are buried in the mud.
But I also think of Alice Notley’s poetry of grief and mourning—from Descent of Alette to Alma or The Dead Women:
“she made a form” “in her mind” “an imaginary” “form” “to
settle” “in her arms where” “the baby” “had been” “We saw
her fiery arms” “cradle air” “She cradled air” (“They take your
children” “away” “if you’re on fire”)
I think of Lisa Robertson’s book The Weather, and of NourbeSe M. Philip’s Zong! and even of Jen Bervin’s Nets, which I’ll talk about in another post. I like what Swenson has to say about the impossibility of completing such projects…I have been writing a poem for the brother who passed away when we were young for years now. I still don’t think it’s finished, but without looking for it in the “failed poems” pile I can tell you the ending as it stands: “no words, we have no words for the glistening one/ the one who slipped away, and with him, faith.”
The ways in which we grieve are not straightforward—nor need the way in which we write poetry of grief be. There are 195 elegies on this site, and all quite different. I recall a conversation with the poet David Groff, who writes many elegies, in which I asked him what an unimaginable elegy was? That’s what I’m after. A mournful song, yes, but I want an elegy that is sculpture, I want it big and abstract, or like a dance piece, silent and explosive, or I want it to descend on me like waves, or be built of straw with outlook points like peaks of meringue; I want to evoke the beloved in some surprising way, having become light, or spun of contrails. I want to sculpt a poem for this brother, the second I have lost, the second brother. I have begun gathering the material. For the moment I am trying an erasure poem to unearth a little something for him from The Odyssey. It too will remain in the failed poem file. It’s a big file. I’m generous with it.
But come, my friend,
tell us your own story now, and tell it truly.
Where have your rovings forced you?
What lands of men, have you seen, what sturdy towns,
what men themselves? Who were wild, savage, lawless?
Who were friendly to strangers, god-fearing men? Tell me,
why do you Weep and grieve so sorely: when you hear
the fate of the Argives, hear the fall of Troy?
That is the gods’ work, spinning threads of death
through the lives of mortal men…. 650