Friday, November 1, 2013

(literary) companions in grief

It will come as no shock to those of you who know me well that I find solace in literature. My real-life friends are wonderful, and I have praised you here on these virtual pages, but many of my oldest and most intimate friends are met on the printed page. In this post, I'd like to introduce you to some of them.

Anne Bradstreet was a Puritan and a poet in the early seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay Colony. If you picked up a memorial card at Adam's funeral, you saw her poem "To My Dear and Loving Husband," the last two lines of which have been with me lately:


Then while we live in love, let's so persever,

That when we live no more, we may live ever.

The above is, by far, my favorite, but Bradstreet has other poems that model faith amidst sorrow.


Where Bradstreet is excellent for comfort, Anna Akhmatova, an early twentieth-century Russian poet, is excellent for lamentation. Her cycle of poems, Реквием [Requiem], lays bare the soul's anguish at separation and loss. Especially apt is her description of the out-of-bodiness of grief:

                      
III
Нет, это не я, это кто-то другой страдает.
Я бы так не могла, а то, что случилось,
Пусть черные сукна покроют,
И пусть унесут фонари.
                                   Ночь.

3.

No it is not I, someone else is suffering.
I could not have borne it otherwise, all that’s happening,
Let them grant to it a dark covering,
And let them take away the glittering......
                                                            Night.

This cycle of poems is on the syllabus for my world literature course, and teaching it is always bittersweet for me because it puts me through the ringer, while the students often don't appreciate its power.


Frederico Garcia Lorca's Llanto por Ignacio Sanchez Mejias [Lament for...] is also on the syllabus for that course, and the last time I taught it, in SP 2013, a couple of the students were deeply affected by this cycle of poems. They said that Lorca was spot on in his description of the process of grief. I didn't know it then, but now I know that they were totally right. Throughout the Llanto, Lorca, an early twentieth-century Spanish poet, captures the sense of time having stopped by building his poems around repeated phrases and parallel structure. 


The line from Lorca's Llanto that has been with me lately is the repeated phrase from the fourth poem: no te conoce, no te conoce, no te conoce. Somewhere (apologies that I can't remember where) I stumbled upon the insight that immediately upon the death of one's spouse, one is no longer the person one had been. I am increasingly aware that this new world, in which my new self lives, does not know Adam. 


Recently, a couple of kindred spirits have sent me poems with whom I'm starting make friends. One of these is Norwegian poet Karin Boye's "Din värme" ["Your Warmth"]. Another is "Life After Death" by Laura Gilpin, a twentieth-century American poet who reminds us


How the living go on living

and how the dead go on living with them
....
so that nothing is wasted in nature 
or in love.

Indeed, love is never wasted, even when it is lost.