Day 24 of the Poem Elf 2020 Countdown

To kick off the countdown series, a poem at a coronavirus testing site—

poem is above neon “OPEN” sign

 

Susanna

by Anne Porter

 

Nobody in the hospital

Could tell the age

Of the old woman who

Was called Susanna

 

I knew she spoke some English

And that she was an immigrant

Out of a little country

Trampled by armies

 

Because she had no visitors

I would stop by to see her

But she was always sleeping

 

All I could do

Was to get out her comb

And carefully untangle

The tangles in her hair

 

One day I was beside her

When she woke up

Opening small dark eyes

Of a surprising clearness

 

She looked at me and said

You want to know the truth?

I answered Yes

 

She said it’s something that

My mother told me

 

There’s not a single inch

Of our whole body

That the Lord does not love

 

She then went back to sleep.

 

 

Are old people worth less than the rest of us? No one wants to be heard answering in the affirmative, but an affirmative answer lurks behind the way horrifying coronavirus statistics get sloughed off. Yes, hundreds of thousands of people died of coronavirus, but. . . But what?. . .  But most of them were old people. . . So?. . . So they were going to die soon anyway. . ..

 

All but the most brazen don’t finish the equation (at least out loud), to wit:

 

healthy economy > lives of the elderly

 

It’s not that simple, I hear you, I know. But one way or the other the dignity and value of our old people have been sullied this year. Not only by proponents of the above equation but by the facts of their suffering. Old people isolated in nursing homes and hospital rooms, shut off from human contact. Old people dying alone, struggling to breathe alone, attended to by strangers. Old age so often brings loneliness and isolation, but the pandemic has pushed that loneliness and isolation to an epic scale.

 

Let’s bring poet Anne Porter into the discussion. Porter gives us Susanna, a woman so old no one even can guess her age, an immigrant no less, from a country deemed expendable, a little country/ trampled by armies. (I’m guessing Poland.) Susanna sleeps all day and seems to require extensive care, or to use the more modern word, resources.

 

But the speaker in the poem sees that lump in the bed as a human being, worthy of attention and love. And the pay-off (a word I use only in the spirit of crass thinking) is huge.

 

Even if you don’t believe in Susanna’s theology—

 

There’s not a single inch

Of our whole body

That the Lord does not love

 

—you can see love in action, going back between the two characters like a tennis ball. The speaker gently brushes Susanna’s hair; Susanna in turn offers a bit of wisdom the speaker is receptive to. More than that, Susanna in her suffering has allowed the speaker to express the tenderest, kindest part of her character. Whether or not you believe that such kindness is the most central part of the human personality (as I do), you have to acknowledge that it exists in varying degrees in nearly everyone. And that is something to hold onto in dark times.

 

I offer”Susanna” as a tribute to our elders, to those who take care of them, and to all the suffering families who would give anything just to be able to carefully untangle/ the tangles of their loved one’s hair.

 

*

Anne Porter is in the top five of my favorite poets; her husband Fairfield shares that ranking in the list of my favorite artists. Here’s a bio from a previous post.

 

Anne Porter’s literary career was launched when she was 83 with the publication of her first book of poetry. Can I say that again? Her literary career was launched when she was 83. Surely that’s the most hopeful, life-affirming sentence I’ve ever written. 

 

Born in Boston to a wealthy family, she attended Bryn Mawr and married the American painter and art critic Fairfield Porter. Their marriage was not an easy one. He indulged his artistic temperament and sexual drives while she tended to their five children* and hosted his friends for months on end at their homes in Southampton and Maine. Lovely that some of these guests were his lovers, male and female, but to be fair, she had a liason of her own.

 

Their life together fascinates me. I’ve lost a good hour following their story link to link, drawn down down the rabbit hole of mid-century bohemia. Their social and familial circles pull in such a number of artists and intellectuals, it’s a veritable Bloomsbury group.

 

“Anne in Doorway” by Fairfield Porter

 

Like so many other wives of writers and artists, Anne Porter remained hidden and overlooked until the death of her husband. I have a vision of her tottering on her walker, step by step, on through the heap of egos, drama, passion and duty that blocks her path, until at last she emerges cheerfully on the other side, an artist in her own right. She died in 2011, a month shy of her 100th birthday.

 

*Her oldest son was mentally disabled in some way, either autistic or schizophrenic. When he died in 1980 she wrote the heartbreaking “For My Son Johnny.”

 

 For more information on the remarkable Porter, read this profile in the Wall Street Journal.

 

 

 

 

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