Winter Ghosts

I’ve been negligent. As I become more obviously pregnant, folks are so obviously and loquaciously delighted, and yes, this new baby, this unexpected girl, is a much-needed bright star in a dark year. How lovely to talk about impending birth instead of death! But it’s exhausting being so grateful all the time. I find myself staying home, avoiding the phone.

I’m a tempest of hormones and grief, and the person I most want to talk with about it is gone, the source of my pain.

I don’t need bucking up. I don’t need to be told how lucky I am. Dad was 49 when he died; he never saw his children into adulthood, never knew his grandkids. And that sucks. And it sucks that they didn’t get to grow old together. Mum was at our weddings, got to be a grammie to our kids, but she still cried in her room at night, missing her lost-too-soon husband, her life’s companion. And having had Mum for her 68 years doesn’t make her death any less of a loss to me now.

Because wonderful things and terrible things happen right alongside each other. But the wonderful things don’t “make up for” the terrible things. They’re not two sides of the same coin or balances on a scale. Life never balances out, and some days that knowledge is harder to take than others.

Kevin Prufer has a smart piece up over at About a Word on sentimentality (which is a sort of reaction to or expansion on his involvement in the Symposium on Sentiment in the new issue of Pleiades), and he says “sentimentality often involve[s] reducing an emotionally complex situation into an emotionally simple one.” And I think that’s what I’m getting at. This urge to tidy things up. It’s not just that it’s premature now, because it’s always premature.

More than that, it’s a falsification. Life is ever so much more than glass half empty/ glass half full.

It’s good to be thankful, count your blessings. But it can become simplistically reactionary, a sort of emotional shorthand that denies acknowledgment and validity to the full range of individual experience. And when that denial comes from without, from others who insist you must “accent-uate the positive, elim-inate the negative,” it feels worse than a lie. It feels like an erasure.

The Writing Blues

Aidan at work on his magnum opus.

My children are ever so much more productively writing than I am. Vincent’s discovering the discoveries and challenges of reading and writing, and Aidan is doggedly working on his own mysterious pages.

I, on the other hand, have written exactly two poems since my mother died. That Salamander will be publishing one of them in their next issue is some consolation, but I’m feeling the pull and tug of the writing bug.

After Aidan was born, I buckled down and wrote a poem a week, and kept at it consistently, for a long time. Not all were worth keeping or working on, but the regularity of effort kept my mind chugging.

But now, sometimes, a lot of times, I just feel stymied. What to say that’s not about my mother and how intensely I miss her? (Which is responsible for the silences here as well.)

I’ve reached that stage where I’m weary of talking about my grief. I miss her. It hurts. Nothing helps, nothing will help, because she’s not coming back. Emotionally I accept that, but I’m just bored with myself.

I’m not unaware of my life’s many blessings, not least of which is a plenitude of love, my dear family, this unexpected gift of a new child in the spring.

I’m also grateful that I live a life saturated in literature: Tupelo Press, the Collected Poets Series, the support and love of poet friends — it’s a financially precarious life, but I love it and am thankful for it.

Which is to say, I love my life. To paraphrase the film, “Super 8,” (which I also loved), bad things happen, but I can go on. I can live, and can live happily.

I guess I’m just trying to find a way to write about this abiding sadness that doesn’t feel maudlin or self-indulgent or tedious. It’s one thing to bore myself; it’s unforgivable to bore others.

Grief & Poetry in Progress

****"Untitled (Head of a Baby)" **** by Ron Mueck

Seventeen weeks since my mother died.

If my grief were a baby, it wouldn’t be eating solid food yet.

If my grief were a grapevine, the fruit would only now be ripening.

But my grief will not grow, or rot on the vine.

If anything has changed, it’s my understanding of how to approach it: carefully. At an angle. Not for nothing did ED say, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Summoning the memory of my mother’s last moments helps make her loss real, but I can only muster a glance from the corners of my eyes. To face this memory head-on is as devastating now as it was in March.

Approaching new writing can work like that, too. The glare of the blank page can be daunting if you don’t have an idea in your head, just the itch to get going already.

Ted Hughes draft

Yesterday I read a poem I really liked, but felt was marred by its final line. I sent the link to a friend, and he sent me back a line by line critique, and his own suggested edits. Which I disagreed with. So then I tinkered with it myself, and sent him my revision.

The most interesting part of this exercise was how similar it felt to revising my own poems, probably because this poem is stylistically and aesthetically kin to mine. I think so, anyway.

Point being, working on revisions of someone else’s poem can be a really useful warm-up to writing a draft of your own. Approaching a new poem from a roundabout.

I’m not going to post these poems here, because that would be awkward and weird, and I’d feel awkward and weird if the poet discovered them. (How rude!) Possibly I’m overly self-conscious about this.

But if you’re curious, feel free to drop me a line and I’ll send them to you, as long as you promise to keep it to yourself. Seriously. (How rude!)

And maybe then you could take a crack at it, too: an infinity of (secret!) parallel poems.

~~~

Update: No sooner did I post this than I came across this!: Breaking the Rules: A Poetry Workshop. I’m not such a revolutionary after all.

“Every lament is a love-song.”*

Many summer Sundays growing up, my family would get up at dawn, skip church, and instead head out to the beach at the Myles Standish State Forest in Carver, MA. Not just my immediate family, but a huge swath of aunts, uncles, and cousins — Mum was a Georgia girl, but Dad was born & bred in Stoughton, MA, the youngest of 8 — that side of the family is massive.

The beach opened at 8am, so we’d get there around 7:30 — which meant we’d have to leave home around 6:30 — and park on the side of the road in the long line that had already formed. Then we’d wander up & down the length of cars, looking for our cousins to play with while we waited. As 8 approached, we’d all scurry back to our cars, willing our folks to hurry up and park. Whichever family cohorts parked first would commandeer a bunch of picnic tables to put together.

We came equipped with table cloths, paper plates, mugs, & plasticware; ropes to tie to the pines and hang our wet towels on; gas stoves for making tea & coffee and cooking bacon & eggs; my cousin Dianne always brought Dunkin’ Donuts; and of course hot dogs and hamburgers and chips. There were two big boxes of provisions at the house that were never unpacked, only added to.

First in, last out. The sun would be setting, we’d have changed out of our bathing suits into long pants and sweatshirts, and still not want to leave, climbing the empty  life guard chairs to avoid the clouds of black flies. But the beach closed at 8pm, so eventually we’d have to go.

But it wasn’t time to separate from the larger family, not yet. First, we drove to  Erickson’s, a roadside ice cream stand in Carver, not too far from the beach. My childhood tasted like banana ice cream — was there ever a sweeter end to a summer day?

It’s been eleven weeks since Mum died. The more days that pass without her, the emptier they feel. My southern mother loved the summer, loved the heat, the beach, even though she never learned to swim. She’d wade out to about mid-thigh, and then sit in the water for a while. That was enough for her.

The raw anguish and outrage has burned out to a dull and ragged ache. Things happen, good things, and I’m happy. I can be happy. But I feel the lack of her only more every day. If a happy thing falls** in the forest but I have no mother to tell it to, does it really happen?

The longer she’s gone, the harder it is to pretend she’s not — we’d have spoken, seen each other, so many times by now. I can accept the awful wrongness of it all, say, Yes, my mother is dead. But still my heart protests: it is awful, it is wrong. Sorrow is no longer the islands but the sea.*

* from Lament for a Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff

** from “Duino Elegies: The Tenth Elegy,” by Rainer Maria Rilke

“Remembrance–mighty word.”*

I’ve had an interesting enough life, I think. But I’ve never had that impulse before, the almost visceral drive to document my life in prose. The memoir. You could argue that’s what I do here, but I think of this as a selection of very loose-jointed, random snapshots.

I get it now. Though it’s not my own life I feel compelled to record, but my mother’s. And not actually her entire life, but the last five days of it. Days we didn’t know were her last.

The 2:00 am shuffle-shuffle to the commode, her arms tight around my neck as I held her up. We’re dancing, she wheezed.

The night Vincent stayed up past his bedtime telling Syllab0-stories to her, fairly glowing with necessity. He had to tell her these stories, nothing could dim the force of his intensity.

Her final hours, which came on so fast. Three weeks since she died, now. How each day without her makes its own memorial.

I was listening to The Culture Gabfest on Slate, because this edition features an interview with Meghan O’Rourke (after the Sidney Lumet film discussion) about her memoir, The Long Goodbye. Find the time somewhere, and listen. She talks about our common need for ritual, and our also common discomfort with others’ grief, and how often the loss of a parent can be seen as less. Less of a trauma, less of a loss.

She says that sometimes, all we really need is a space, acknowledgment, not to discuss it so much, just to give grief its due. I can’t remember her exact, perfect phrasing, so please, listen. This struck me as particularly and brilliantly insightful — last week we had an evening for just this sort of communal acknowledgment. Something beyond a memorial or funeral, something that makes plain that this is a wound that doesn’t heal, a permanent and irreconcilable emptiness.

My friend, Lea, lost her mother ten days before mine died. So my sweet and thoughtful husband came up with a plan, a joint remembrance, a Poetry Potluck Buck-Up Party, which our friends at Mocha Maya’s Coffee House kindly opened their doors for. Food, friends, and poetry, my ideal.

The very point of the night was to make a space for our losses, acknowledge their significance. To be open and honest and raw in grief, among friends. To be recognized as bereft. Bereft.

So many dear friends came, I can’t begin to tell you how potent it was. I love my mother, miss my mother, think of something I want to tell my mother every other minute  — to stand up and be known in my grief meant the world. Thank you, my friends.

*The Borzoi Reader Poem-A-Day, April 10, 2011: A Letter from Emily Dickinson written on the occasion of her mother’s death.

A Preponderance of Grief.

Not only did I get the two reviews I’d committed to writing written (one on Carol Frost, the other on Ellen Bryant Voigt), but I got them done early, a minor miracle. So they were published early. Reading them in printed form, I discovered something I hadn’t noticed in the absorption of writing — both reviews reference grief an inordinate number of times.

There have been so many losses of late — David Foster Wallace, Reginald Shepherd — great talents, young talents, I can’t get my heart or mind around them. I’ve also learned that a dear customer of mine, not a young man by any stretch of the imagination, but a great-grandfather, a retired professor who continued to teach his fellow residents in a retirement community (his fall class was to be on Milton), is riddled with terminal cancer.

Tragedy leaves me inarticulate, with a mouthful of banalities. As usual, I can only let poetry speak for me.

By Connie Wanek, from her collection, Hartley Field (Holy Cow! Press, 2002):

A Field of Barley

Wind passes over a field of barley.
Nothing could be more lyrical.
Why God favored Abel’s burnt meat
I’ll never understand.

Sometimes I imagine the hills of Nod
covered with barley, and Cain standing alone,
dark with sunburn, wondering
what more he must do to be forgiven.

Years ago I visited a blooming orchard
on the east slope of the mountains
watered by its own spring, and I thought
I’d surely found Eden.

At night we saw city lights glowing
far out in the plain,
but the dark rock rose behind the farm,
eternal and absolute.

Up there one could see tragedy
long before it arrived,
foreshadowed in the first act.
Dust swelled behind its four wheels.

Dread is our inheritance.
But what sprouts out of the earth
is our consolation, the good yellow grain,
heavy in our arms.