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A sunny day in northern Michigan. A long walk past farmland and on to a wooded trail. Three Seamus Heaney poems to deliver, three poems full of the most beautiful nouns and verbs but also full of death. Three watchful deer who scared the bejeebers out of me and two wrong turns that added miles to my trek. But it was a happy couple of hours nonetheless.

 

 

Each of these poems deserves a much fuller examination than the cursory notes I put here. I encourage everyone to read and re-read them. There’s more to see at every pass.

 

 

Let’s start with the least disturbing death, “Blackberry picking.” Here is the death of innocence, of beauty, of lust, take your pick. I set the poem against an electric fence bordering an organic farm that to my knowledge does not produce blackberries.

 

 

There’s gluttony and Bluebeard-level “blood” in these blackberry fields. Over-indulging leaves its mark (stains and prickles) but it’s only death (fruit fungus in this case) that ends the feeding frenzy. Pleasures of the flesh can’t last forever:

 

I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair

That all the lovely canfuls smell of rot

Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

 

 

I stuck “Man and Boy” on a hilltop tree overlooking a lake. You can just see the poem in the lower-left portion of the photo.

 

Who is man and who is boy keeps switching in this poem. The two main characters, the boy and his father, experience age in a non-linear way. Time operates in a circle, moving forward and back at once, forming unheard concentric soundwaves like the salmon’s, a perfect ring like the mower’s.

 

 

The final image almost makes me dizzy. As the speaker imagines his father running home to hear of his own father’s death, he becomes a boy on his father’s back being carried as if he were an old man. Got it? Forget it, read it for yourself.  I’ve re-printed it below because the picture is too hard to read.

 

Man and Boy

by Seamus Heaney

 

I

“Catch the old one first,”

(My father’s joke was also old, and heavy

And predictable). “Then the young ones

Will all follow, and Bob’s your uncle.”

On slow bright river evenings, the sweet time

Made him afraid we’d take too much for granted

And so our spirits must be lightly checked.

Blessed be down-to-earth! Blessed be highs!

Blessed be the detachment of dumb love

In the broad-backed, low-set man

Who feared debt all his life, but now and then

Could make a splash like the salmon he said was

“As big as a wee pork pig by the sound of it.”

 

II

In earshot of the pool where the salmon jumped

Back through its own unheard concentric soundwaves

A mower leans forever on his scythe.

He has mown himself to the centre of the field

And stands in a final perfect ring

Of sunlit stubble.

“Go and tell your father,” the mower says

(He said it to my father who told me)

“I have it mowed as clean as a new sixpence.”

My father is a barefoot boy with news,

Running at eye-level with weeds and stooks

On the afternoon of his own father’s death.

The open, black half of the half-door waits.

I feel much heat and hurry in the air.

I feel his legs and quick heels far away

And strange as my own — when he will piggyback me

At a great height, light-headed and thin-boned,

Like a witless elder rescued from the fire.

 

 

Finally, I tucked “Strange Fruit” in the bark of a fallen tree. It was here that the deer startled me.

 

“Strange Fruit” is one of the bog poems Heaney wrote about the bodies of Iron Age men and women discovered in northern Europe. Their deaths were gruesome. It would be interesting to put this “Strange Fruit” up against Billie Holliday’s. The violent tribes may have lived thousands of years apart, but ritualized murder connects them indelibly.

 

Heaney notes that Greek historian Diodorus Siculus found his ease with the likes of this, but Heaney himself seems haunted by image of the young girl defying her executioners:

Beheaded girl, outstaring axe

And beatification, outstaring

What had begun to feel like reverence.

 

 

 

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was a rock star of a poet, sometimes called “the greatest Irish poet since Yeats,” and one I had the pleasure of hearing live at a poetry reading long ago. I can’t say I understood much of what he said with his thick Irish accent, but I remember well his gentle charisma and his reading of the poem “Digging.”

 

Heaney was born in Northern Ireland, the oldest of nine children. He was raised on the family farm which figures in much of his poetry. He was also raised Catholic in a predominantly Protestant world.

 

He studied at Queen’s College in Belfast and then taught at St. Joseph’s in the same city. Later he was a revered professor at Harvard, Oxford and University of California Berkley. In 1995 he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

 

He and his wife were married for forty-eight years and had three children together. He died unexpectedly at age 74.

 

This biography is much too short to capture his contributions. I’m feeling lazy, so link here to read more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Tis the season to frolic and I’m idle and sluggish. Nothing like a summer cold to sour the sunshine. And nothing like soured sunshine to call forth the de facto fairy godfather of misery, poet Franz Wright.

 

So happened I had six Wright poems to dispose of. Leaving them around the small town in northern Michigan where I’m recuperating was as good as an Advil for getting me off the couch. If laughter is the best medicine, At least I’m not as unhappy as all that runs a close second.

 

 

 

 

Let’s jump right into the pit. At an abandoned old ski motel I left “Reunion.” (The poem is on the blue wall next to the corner doorway.)

 

Wright is forever grappling with the ghost of his father, poet James Wright. This particular grappling slays me. And this self-portrait—yikes—

What am I? A skull

biting its fingernails, a no one

with nowhere to be

 

On another abandoned building I left “Thoughts of a Solitary Farmhouse,” which I know is a favorite of many Wright fans. (The poem is taped to the concrete post in front of the big bush.)

 

What a beautiful memento mori, bleak and horrifying though it is

 

“The Comedian” brings us into a real house of horrors. I taped it to a sign by the side of an empty road.

 

The illegible note hung like a crucifix . . . the cops turning on the son who called in for help . . . the smell of alcohol, the drool . . . impossible to touch him or get near. . . that final laugh . . . unimaginable pain.

 

Moving back towards his painful childhood, “The Day” is an eerie recreation of what amounts to A Good Day for young Franz. (It’s on the spigot of the water fountain.)

 

Anyone who had a dysfunctional parent can relate to those times of relief when the dysfunction was dormant for one reason or another.

 

At the entrance to an uphill hike I left “Depiction of Childhood.” (Poem is taped to pole.)

 

I’ve looked over Picasso’s drawings of the little girl leading the minotaur and in each she’s holding either flowers or a dove, so it’s interesting that Wright has her lifting a lamp instead. Going back and forth between the poem and the different versions Picasso drew is giving me loads to think about. Like the minotaur, I’m entranced and thrown off.

 

In the absence of a sea-sea I taped “Infant Sea Turtles” to a sea wall on an inland lake.

 

This is such a strange poem, taking us from present day to prehistory to biblical times, from land to sea to the moon, to a place where man-made terms are arbitrary (“what we call the moon,” “Eve, or caesarean child,” “the great scar called the sea,” “lover or child”) which is the very space that poetry grows out of.

 

Here’s a bio of Wright from a previous post:

Franz Wright’s face is his biography. This is what a hard life looks like. But it’s a heroic face too, considering the suffering he lived with: beatings by his father, worse beatings by his stepfather, parental abandonment, manic-depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Like writer Mary Karr, his onetime colleague and friend, he overcame addiction and converted to Catholicism, finding some measure of stability in the last sixteen years of his life.

 

Franz Wright (1953-2015) was born in Austria where his father, the famous poet James Wright, was studying on a Fulbright scholarship. The older Wright left the family when Franz was eight, and only stayed in sporadic contact with the family. When Franz was fifteen he sent his father a poem, and his father wrote back, “Well I’ll be damned. You’re a poet. Welcome to hell.”

 

The younger Wright graduated from Oberlin College in 1977. In 1984 he was winning awards and teaching at Emerson College when he was fired for “drinking related activities.” He sunk into a years-long depression, wasn’t able to write, and attempted suicide.

 

In 1999 he married a former student, Elizabeth Oehklers. He converted to Catholicism, got sober and was able to write again.

 

He died of lung cancer at age 62.

 

[Note:  This post is part of my summer project. I have multiple poems from a few poets—poems from the recently departed Marie Ponsot among them—and I’ll be lumping them together in a single post for each poet.]

 

 

 

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poem is on the railing

 

The Birds Have Vanished Into the Sky

by Li Po

 

The birds have vanished into the sky,

and now the last cloud drains away.

 

We sit together, the mountain and me,

until only the mountain remains.

 

 

 

A cable car ride up Austria’s Zwolferhorn led to this view of the Alps, a pretty sweet spot to leave a poem about mountains and time and mortality.

 

Li Po (his name is also translated as Li Bai and Li Bo) was born in present-day Kryrzstan sometime around 701 and raised in present-day Chengdu. He led a full life, to say the least. In his teens he killed a few men (for reasons of chivalry, according to Wikipedia). In his twenties he wandered and gave away most of his money. He served at court, was expelled from court, led a revolt, was charged with treason, was pardoned, wandered again, and was very often drunk. He married four times. He died in 762, most likely of cirrhosis, although legend has it that he died trying to embrace the moon’s reflection in the water. Because he was sitting drunk in a canoe.

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A Country Epitaph

by William Stafford

 

I am the man who plunged

through a river to save his dog;

who failed my parents, though;

who forgot my grief, and sang.

 

Outside your light I stand.

I appeal through careless words,

I appeal by this casual stone:

Was there more I could have done?

 

I appeal to human beings:

 

One day at a time I lived;

I saw more than I told;

I never knew if I claimed

too little or too much. I breathed.

 

There was more I could have done.

 

 

“A Country Epitaph” reminds me of another epitaph, the one in Arizona’s Boothill Graveyard we all learned in childhood:

Here lies Lester Moore.

Four slugs from a .44

No Les. No more.

 

 

In a similar vein, the speaker in Stafford’s poem says, This is my life, no less, no more. He’s trying to give an honest accounting of his earthly days, the good, the bad, the indifferent. No false modesty, no excessive remorse, no polishing of a turd.

 

The facts of his life lead to this question:  Was there more I could have done? Yes, of course. The answer is always yes, I dare say, for every human being who has walked the face of the earth.

 

Although the speaker poses his question to the reader, he answers it himself. There was more I could have done. He feels regret but wears it lightly. That’s a feat, in life as it is on the page.

 

The usual epitaph, etched in stone, is a formal composition, each word carefully considered. This one feels informal, extemporaneous. The speaker says as much to those standing over his grave—

 

I appeal through careless words

 

—but the words in the poem are more loaded than careless. Stafford’s sly construction allows more than one meaning to his pronouncements, meanings which are as contradictory as the measure of his life.

 

  • I appeal through careless words…..Appeal does double work here, first in the sense of making an appeal to the reader, the way a plaintiff does to a judge, but also, I want to appeal to you, please like me!

 

  • forgot my grief, and sang…..Was he resilient in being able to move on after a loss? Or heartless, forgetting it too soon?

 

  • I saw more than I told….This line is so opaque, I can’t see through it. In terms of gossip, seeing more than you tell is good. If we’re talking about a man’s emotional availability, not so good. Multiple meanings exist in other fields, in writing, for example. It’s slippery.

 

  • One day at a time, I lived has echoes of the old Alcoholics Anonymous adage, which in turn calls up images of dark times. Even if the A.A. reference is unintentional, the question of living a day at a time can be positive or negative. Living fully in the present is one of the primary virtues in our age of anxiety, but it can also be shortsighted—remember Aesop’s tale of the ant and grasshopper.

 

 

Stafford works both sides of the fence with the form of the poem as well as with the words. In spite of his protest that it’s a casual stone, “A Country Epitaph” is expertly assembled. It reads like everyday speech, haphazard and casual—a difficult thing to do. Formal elements give a stealthy pleasure:  the almost eye rhymes (dog/though, plunged/sang); an actual eye rhyme (stone/done); the accumulating consonance of the last quatrain (lived/told/claimed/breathed), the final D suggesting death and leading to the last word, done.

 

 

I left the poem outside a Hawaiian cemetery on a surrounding wall. Hawaiian cemeteries are colorful places. Most graves, even the very old ones, have some decoration—leis, a vase of bird of paradise, orchids, anthurium, grocery store flowers. Stroll through the randomly arranged tombstones and you’ll find photographs, stuffed animals, handwritten notes, even favorite foods of the deceased, each offering a testament to the reverence and closeness Hawaiians feel towards the dead. Some people pull up lawn chairs and have a picnic. This particular cemetery has a giant Buddha companionably sharing space with an open-armed Jesus across the field. There’s a Mary statue as well.

 

 

William Stafford (1914-1993) was born in Kansas, the oldest of three. He earned his BA from University of Kansas. As a conscientious objector during WWII, he performed alternative service on the home front, working in sugar beet fields and oil refineries, and building roads and fighting fires. At one of these work camps he met his future wife, Dorothy Franz, whom he married in 1944 and with whom he had four children.

 

Stafford got his PhD from University of Iowa in 1954 and taught for most of his career at Lewis and Clark in Oregon.

 

His publishing history inspires a late bloomer like me. He was 46 when his first book of poetry saw print and went on to publish over fifty-seven volumes of poetry, and to earn, among many awards, Guggenheim and NEA fellowships.

 

Stafford’s oldest son Bret committed suicide in 1988 age 40. Stafford wrote about his son’s death but could never talk about with his family. Still, the Staffords seemed to have been close. To get a sense of his home life, link to an interview here with his wife Dorothy and two of his children. I love the anecdote his wife tells about their later years:

 

He would often say, “Do you hurt anywhere, Dorothy?” I’d say, “No.” And he’d say, “Well then let’s celebrate.”

 

He had a lifelong habit of rising early every morning to write, reclining on a couch. On the day of his death, at age 79, he wrote a poem “Are You Mr. William Stafford?” which includes these lines:

 

 “You don’t have to
prove anything,” my mother said. “Just be ready
for what God sends.” I listened and put my hand
out in the sun again. It was all easy.

 

 

 

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This is a picture of my sister Josie and her late husband Edison. The poem-elfing that follows is a private one, written and posted as a thank-you to my other sister, Mary K.  With Josie’s and Mary K.’s permission, I’m sharing it with you.

 

A little background before you read the poem. Until late 2016 Josie and Edison lived in Ecuador with their two young girls. Then Edison was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, glioblastoma (the same cancer Senator John McCain is fighting). In early 2017 the family came back to the States for treatment.

 

My mother had recently passed away and her house sold, so there was no “home base” for Josie and her girls to stay while Edison was in the hospital. They lived with different family members—his, hers—and generous friends. They changed houses often, depending on the logistics of the next day, sometimes nightly. (The street names mentioned in the poem are some of those homes.)

 

Every day of the seven- month ordeal, Josie drove and drove, dropping the girls off at school, heading up to Baltimore where Edison was in the hospital or rehab. She drove an old Mountaineer my sister Mary K loaned her. The car was almost thirty years old, had bad shocks (you’ll see the pun) and needed bricks behind the tires to stay in park. Still, it got Josie where she needed to go, and became, as you’ll see, her in-between home.

 

During the course of his brave fight, Edison lost the ability to speak, write, and walk. He passed away peacefully on July 8, 2018.

It was tragic. That’s what we all said. It’s so sad. It’s such a terrible situation. Pat phrases, necessary because the suffering of this man and his family was overwhelming to consider. Remembering that, I’m reminded of a story my sister Wizzie likes to tell of a co-worker who always said, in response to almost everything, “It’s so hard.” If someone was discussing their weekend and mentioned in passing that the tennis courts were crowded, this co-worker would say, “I know, it’s so hard.” The deli was out of root beer? The forecast rain? In-box full? “I know, it’s so hard.”

 

Her colleagues soon realized her pat phrase said more about what she was going through than what was being said. And that’s the thing about pat phrases. They allow us to gloss over suffering. They can keep us from hearing. They can prevent us from seeing.

 

Poetry is a counterpoint to that. Poetry breaks through pat responses. Poetry allows us to see a particular person, a particular situation, a particular emotion. That’s one reason I love Josie’s poem. It’s a look behind the curtain. As much as I thought I was aware of what she was going through, I wasn’t. This poem gives fresh insight. Reading the poem, I can see that she was, in spite of all the support that surrounded her, fundamentally alone in her suffering.

 

When Josie returned Mary K.’s car last week, she taped her poem to the front windshield.

 

 

So here’s the poem, in three overlapping pictures:

My home in-between. There’s a lot going on there.

 

I’m going to lighten the mood here a little and say that I myself am partial to in-between places, to any place I can pause before moving forward—a parked car, a hallway, the crook of a tree—and as long as we’re going back to childhood, Halfway Down the Stairs, as A.A. Milne says in his poem of the same name:

 

Halfway down the stairs

Is a stair

Where I sit.

There isn’t any

Other stair

Quite like

It.

I’m not at the bottom,

I’m not at the top;

So this is the stair

Where

I always

Stop.

  

Halfway up the stairs

Isn’t up,

And isn’t down.

It isn’t in the nursery,

It isn’t in the town.

And all sorts of funny thoughts

Run round my head:

“It isn’t really

Anywhere!

It’s somewhere else

Instead!”

 

Okay, pause ended, hit play. Back to It’s so hard.

“Oh Mountaineer,” Josie writes at the end, and I hear Walt Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” Whitman’s poem has a different spirit, not elegiac as here, but hopeful, forward-looking, a celebration of the pioneers’ bravery and fortitude.

 

I’m going to post it here for Josie, for her girls, for anyone who suddenly finds herself a pioneer, for those who are forced—unlike Whitman’s pioneers—to explore new territory when all they really want is to stay put in their old homes, the homes they love best.

 

PIONEERS! O PIONEERS!

 

COME my tan-faced children,

Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,

Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

For we cannot tarry here,

We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,

We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

O you youths, Western youths,

So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,

Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the fore-

most,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

Have the elder races halted?

Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond

the seas?

We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

All the past we leave behind,

We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,

Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

We detachments steady throwing,

Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,

Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

We primeval forests felling,

We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines

within,

We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

 

 

 

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Shapes

by Ruth Stone

 

In the longer view it doesn’t matter.

However, it’s that having lived, it matters.

So that every death breaks you apart.

You find yourself weeping at the door

of your own kitchen, overwhelmed

by loss. And you find yourself weeping

as you pass the homeless person

head in hands resigned on a cement

step, the wire basket on wheels right there.

Like stopped film, or a line of Vallejo,

or a sketch of the mechanics of a wing

by Leonardo. All pauses in space,

a violent compression of meaning

in an instant within the meaningless.

Even staring into the dim shapes

at the farthest edge; accepting that blur.

 

 

Poet Ruth Stone puts forth a pretty bleak view of existence in “Shapes.” Her description of the type of moment that breaks you apart is a nihilistic riddle:

 

A violent compression of meaning in an instant within the meaningless.

 

That’s a view my sister, who is pictured sitting next to the poem on a ferry in Savannah, would not share. For the record, Josie’s presence in the photograph is coincidental and signifies only her willingness to get up and move her seat and not her endorsement of the ideas and images contained herein.

 

[Ahem. Greetings to my dear sister.]

 

Disclaimers aside, this little poem followed me from the Savannah River to a parking lot in Southfield, Michigan, where I found myself this morning momentarily confused staring up at four gigantic flags marking a car dealership. The flags were sunk on their poles at half-mast, and in the bright sun they waved like Sequoia-sized living monuments, calling out to the wee folk below, Remember, Remember, Remember. Remember what? And then I did remember—the Las Vegas massacre, of course—and my heart sank. I stood still, remembering the beautiful faces I had seen in the paper, and then remembering this line from “Shapes”—

 

So that every death breaks you apart.

 

And this one—

 

However, it’s that having lived, it matters.

 

I’m not sure exactly what Stone means by that, but the line sticks with me.

 

Anyone with thoughts on the last two lines?

 

(FYI, Cesar Vallejo was a Peruvian poet considered the greatest Latin American poet of the twentieth century, and by some as the greatest innovator of poetry of the same time period in any language. Link here to learn more about him and read some of his poems.)

 

 

I’ll post Stone’s bio from a previous post:

 

Recognition came late to Stone.   She wrote in relative obscurity and poverty most of her life. In her late eighties, she won the National Book Award and in her nineties was named the Poet Laureate of Vermont. When she died last November [2011] at age 96, every major paper around the globe printed a worshipful obituary.

 

Ruth Stone (1915-2011) was born in Roanoke, Virginia but grew up in Indianapolis. Her father was a typesetter for the Indianapolis Star and a part-time drummer whose gambling addiction kept the family in near poverty. Still, hers was a happy childhood, full of music, literature and fun-loving relatives. Her mother read her Tennyson while she was a toddler, and her grandmothers and aunts engaged her in their love of reading and writing.

 

 

She married young, to a chemist, had a daughter and ended the marriage when she fell in love with professor and poet Walter Stone. They had two children together and their poetry careers were just taking off when he hung himself on a coat hook in their London apartment. She never got over his suicide. In an interview with NPR when she was 89, Stone said, “I think every year – let’s see, he’s been dead maybe 40–some years — I think every year or every day or something, that it won’t come back — the pain. And it always does.”

 

 

She struggled as a single mother of three girls, travelling across the country from teaching post to teaching post to support the family. She eventually settled at SUNY Binghamton and then moved to rural Vermont.   I like this story poet Chard DiNiord tells about when he visited her towards the end of her life:

 

“I didn’t know Ruth before I interviewed her and really didn’t know what to expect when I showed up at her rundown, three-room apartment on Waybridge Street in Middlebury, Vermont. She didn’t open the door at first, fearing, I think, that I was a scam artist. My wife sat on her porch while I went for a brief walk in the hope that she would eventually open her door. While I was gone, she looked out her kitchen window and saw my wife sitting in one of her metal chairs. Although nearly blind from a botched eye procedure, she could still make out figures and colors. She emerged from her apartment in a flannel shirt and corduroy pants and sat next to my wife, taking her hand and immediately engaging her in conversation.”

 

 

And this, from the subsequent published interview:

 

Ruth Stone (laughing): I’m just this weird old lady.

 

CD: You are, and that’s a great thing.

 

CD: Your humor complements your grief in a way that helps you write about loss without becoming morose.

 

Ruth Stone: Yes! Ultimately, you know you can’t help it. Life turns terrible, and it’s so ridiculous, it’s just funny.

 

 

 

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Lament

by Louise Gluck

 

Suddenly, after you die, those friends

who never agreed about anything

agree about your character.

They’re like a houseful of singers rehearsing

the same score:

you were just, you were kind, you lived a fortunate life.

No harmony. No counterpoint. Except

they’re not performers;

real tears are shed.

 

Luckily, you’re dead; otherwise

you’d be overcome with revulsion.

But when that’s passed,

when the guests begin filing out, wiping their eyes

because, after a day like this,

shut in with orthodoxy,

the sun’s amazingly bright,

though it’s late afternoon, September—

when the exodus begins,

that’s when you’d feel

pangs of envy.

 

Your friends the living embrace one another,

gossip a little on the sidewalk

as the sun sinks, and the evening breeze

ruffles the women’s shawls—

this, this, is the meaning of

“a fortunate life”: it means

to exist in the present.

 

Group of graves for a family named “Quaintance.”

 

Ah, the last of the poems in the Cemetery Series, and just in time. What with the hurricanes, floods, fires, earthquakes, and today the sixteenth anniversary of 9/11, I don’t like piling on the pervasive sense of death and destruction.

Interesting that Louise Gluck’s poem is called “Lament.” Lamentations are usually expressions of grief by those left behind. We read their thoughts (“Lamentations” in the Book of Jeremiah) or look at pictures of them grieving (Giotto’s Lamentation of Christ) or watch them dance it out (Martha Graham’s iconic Lamentations), so that we can enter into the desolation they feel, to understand or just to witness. Forget about the feelings of the dead person. Depending on your belief system, the dead person is either resting in unconscious peace or has found better digs. We save our sympathies for those who have to sort through the clothing, face an empty breakfast table, sell the baby stroller.

 

Not here. In Gluck’s “Lament,” we’re asked to dismiss the grief of those left behind. After all, they enjoy sunshine, affection and diverting conversation. Instead Gluck asks us to imagine the emotional life of the dead person. By using the conditional tense, the poet assures us the dead don’t have emotions even as she brings those emotions to life–

you’d be overcome with revulsion

 

and later, watching the guests file out into the sunlit afternoon–

that’s when you’d feel

pangs of envy.

 

The “fortunate life” mentioned in the eulogy belongs, in the end, to the living–

 “a fortunate life”: it means

to exist in the present.

 

This is no comfort. I find this poem existentially horrifying. The dead seem stuck in perpetual regret and longing.

Louise Gluck was born in 1943 in New York City, the second of three daughters. Her older sister died before she was born. Her father, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant, was instrumental (pun intended) in inventing the X-Acto knife.  At sixteen she suffered from anorexia and almost died and entered psychoanalysis for the next seven years. She attended both Sarah Lawrence and Columbia but graduated from neither.

 

Gluck has published fifteen books of poetry and two books of essays, the second one just out this year. She’s taught at University of Iowa and now Yale University. She’s received the Pulitzer and National Book Award for Poetry among many other awards and was named Poet Laureate of the United States in 2003.

 

A 2012 New Yorker profile names her “among the most moving poets of our era, even while remaining the most disabusing.”

 

Details on her personal life are difficult to find beyond that she’s been married and divorced twice and has a son.

 

R.I.P. to all victims of 9/11, the dead and the living alike.

 

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