There isn’t a straight line in this entry.
Over the past few years, I’ve followed a certain trajectory in my poetry classes. I’ve started with the image and ended with the elegy. If forced to explain, I’d probably say that this seemed to cover two major impulses in poetry: to capture an experience and invite a reader into it (with imagery) and to preserve, memorialize, and mourn another person and another person’s experience (the elegy). But after I’d taught the course this way a few times, I started to feel a nagging. I started to feel as though the somewhat arbitrary distinction I had drawn between the two became more and more arbitrary, more and more fragile. Like cardboard to paper to tissue. And then, suddenly: poof. The distinction vanished. I couldn’t see the elegy as a commemoration of the person who was lost; instead, it became a poem about the person who felt that loss, about the experience of loss itself. It became a poem for the living, a poem about the process of living after a loved one has gone.
I’m thinking of Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall,” in which Margaret learns that “it is Margaret” she mourns for. I’m thinking of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, in which he makes a promise:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
In the end, the poem can’t live up to the promise. It’s Shakespeare’s love that lives on, and his writing about it. It’s that love that’s the center of the poem, not the lover her/his self.
It seems, the more I read and think, that we turn to the elegy in times of grief not to remember the person who has passed but to learn about mourning, to try to understand how we move through a world without the person we loved. Or, rather, to try to understand how the world itself moves without the person we loved. It seems that the elegy is a poem about the process of grieving rather than commemoration.
I am not making sense.
I’m not even sure that there is a way to make sense of this.
I think I am wondering: is it always about the self, grieving? Are we all Margarets? Is it possible to keep the promise Shakespeare made? Can we commemorate the person we’ve lost without commemorating ourselves? Or is that the point at all? Is the feeling of grief, the terrible ache of absence, a testament and testimony in and of itself?
I found out yesterday that a very dear friend passed away. I hesitate to write this. I pause, erase. I write again. I tell myself, this isn’t your grief. Over the years, we’d lost touch. There were jobs and geography and illnesses. There were rare moments of reconnection. There was always the feeling of surety that she was there, that there would be another phone call after weeks or months or years of no phone calls. There was always the feeling that I’d find myself talking to her in exactly the same way I did ten years ago, in exactly the way we did when we did find each other again. It seemed so sure that I could see myself curled up in my rocking chair and looking out of the window at the new sod and new spring sky, listening to her laugh and knowing, exactly, how she looked.
I pause again, for a very long time. I want this to be about her. If anyone deserves that, it’s her. It’s her quick and electrically brilliant mind, and the way she twisted and turned language into miracles. It’s generous spirit and laugh and the way she said “oh totally” and “yeah,” the comfort curled inside of those syllables and sounds. In the end, it’s the images. The details. The smallest moments become the most significant. Listening to her impeccable impression of Sylvia Plath. Watching her eat an octopus salad. Washing dishes while she put on her make-up. Her kimono and Nirvana t-shirts and her giddy, glorious grace. I stop. I start again. I want to write a tribute. I want to write of gratitude. I want to remember and transcribe every conversation we had, every moment she held me up, and so many others. At the same time, I realize I can’t. Not adequately. I realize that words can’t be adequate. Nothing is adequate. Nothing will turn back time, and nothing can make me pick up the damn phone and tell her I’ve been listening to Tori Amos and thinking about our old Sims neighborhoods. And perhaps that’s why the elegy so often moves inward: because it can mourn, but it can’t change the reason for mourning. Shakespeare lied. You can’t bring anyone back. And isn’t fair, and it’s the kind of unfairness that rattles the cage of the heart and the mind, the kind of unfairness that it’s nearly impossible to think about, like a limit that approaches but can never reach infinity. A remarkable person was here. Now she isn’t. And somehow I feel like that’s the place to occupy, that wordless place, that strange and mournful moment between all of the possibilities of living and the ceremonies of grief.