I buried my father
in the sky.
Since then, the birds
clean and comb him every morning
and pull the blanket up to his chin
I buried my father underground.
Since then, my ladders
only climb down,
and all the earth has become a house
whose rooms are the hours, whose doors
stand open at evening, receiving
guest after guest
Sometimes I see past them
to the tables spread for a wedding feast.
I buried my father in my heart.
Now he grows in me, my strange son,
my little root who won’t drink milk,
little pale foot sunk in unheard-of night,
little clock spring newly wet
in the fire, little grape, parent to the future
wine, a son the fruit of his own son,
little father I ransom with my life.
We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.
And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.
That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.
O my love, where are they, where are they going?
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.
translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee
The earth will never be the same again
Rock, water, tree, iron, share this grief
As distant stars participate in the pain.
A candle snuffed, a falling star or leaf,
A dolphin death, O this particular loss
A Heaven-mourned; for if no angel cried
If this small one was tossed away as dross,
The very galaxies would have lied.
How shall we sing our love’s song now
In this strange land where all are born to die?
Each tree and leaf and star show how
The universe is part of this one cry,
Every life is noted and is cherished,
and nothing loved is ever lost or perished.
Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.
What I want shouldn’t be confused
with final inactivity:
life alone is what matters,
I want nothing to do with death.
If we weren’t unanimousabout keeping our lives so much in motion,if we could do nothing for once,perhaps a great silence wouldinterrupt this sadness,this never understanding ourselvesand threatening ourselves with death,
perhaps the earth is teaching uswhen everything seems to be deadand then everything is alive.Now I will count to twelveand you keep quiet and I’ll go.
I was young once. I dug holesnear a canal and almost drowned.
I filled notebooks with wordsas carefully as a hunter loads his shotgun.
I had a father also, and I came second to an addiction.
I spent a summer swallowing seedsand nothing ever grew in my stomach.
Every woman I kissed,I kissed as if I loved her.
My left and right hands were rivals.
After I hit puberty, I was kicked out of my parents’ houseat least twice a year. No matter when you receive thisthere was music playing now.
Your grandfather isn’tmy father. I chose to do something with my lifethat I knew I could fail at.
I spent my whole life walkingand hid such colorful wings.–Brian Trimboli
from Rattle #29
I chose the book haphazard
from the shelf, but with Nabokov’s first
sentence I knew it wasn’t the thing
to read to a dying man:
The cradle rocks above the abyss, it began,
and common sense tells us that our existence
is but a brief crack of light
between two eternities of darkness
The words disturbed both of us immediately,
and I stopped. With music it was the same—
Chopin’s piano concerto—he asked me
to turn it off …
But to return to the cradle rocking. I think
Nabokov had it wrong. This is the abyss.
That’s why babies howl at birth,
and why the dying so often reach
for something only they can apprehend."
This present tragedy will eventually
turn into myth, and in the mist
of that later telling the bell tolling
now will be a symbol, or, at least,
a sign of something long since lost.
This will be another one of those
loose changes, the rearrangement of
hearts, just parts of old lives
patched together, gathered into
a dim constellation, small consolation.
Look, we will say, you can almost see
the outline there: her fingertips
touching his, the faint fusion
of two bodies breaking into light.
Full of life now, compact, visible,I, forty years old
the eighty-third year of the States,To one a century hence
or any number of centuries hence,To you yet unborn these,
seeking you.When you read these I that was visible
am become invisible,Now it is you, compact, visible,
realizing my poems, seeking me,Fancying how happy you were
if I could be with you
and become your comrade;Be it as if I were with you.
(Be not too certain but I am now with you.)–Walt Whitman
Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks.
We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect the shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.
In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death.
We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion.
Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.
the year of magical thinking
Didn't you like the way the ants helpthe peony globes open by eating the glue off?Weren't you cheered to see the ironworkerssitting on an I-beam dangling from a cable,in a row, like starlings, eating lunch, maybebaloney on white with fluorescent mustard?Wasn't it a revelation to wagglefrom the estuary all the way up the river,the kill, the pirle, the run, the rent, the beck,the sike barely trickling, to the shock of a spring?Didn't you almost shiver, hearing book liceclicking their sexual dissonance inside an oldWebster's New International, perhaps having justeaten out of it izle, xyster, and thalassacon?What did you imagine lies in wait anywayat the end of a world whose sub-substanceis glaim, gleet, birdlime, slime, mucus, muck?Forget about becoming emaciated. Think of the wrenand how little flesh is needed to make a song.Didn't it seem somehow familiar when the nymphsplit open and the mayfly struggled freeand flew and perched and then its own backbroke open and the imago, the true adult,somersaulted out and took flight, seekingthe swarm, mouth-pans vestigial,alimentary canal come to a stop,a day or hour left to find the desired one?Or when Casanova took up the platterof linguine in squid's ink and slid the stuffout the window, telling his startled companion,"The perfected lover does not eat."As a child, didn't you find it calming to imaginepinworms as some kind of tiny batonsgiving cadence to the squeezes and releasesaround the downward march of debris?Didn't you glimpse in the monarchswhat seemed your own inner blazonryflapping and gliding, in desire, in the middle air?Weren't you reassured to think these flimsyhinged beings, and then their offspring,and then their offspring's offspring, couldnavigate, working in shifts, all the way to Mexico,to the exact plot, perhaps the very tree,by tracing the flair of the bodies of ancestorswho fell in this same migration a year ago?Doesn't it outdo the pleasures of the brilliant concertto wake in the night and find ourselvesholding hands in our sleep?–Galway Kinnell
To Elizabeth Hamilton,This letter, my very dear Eliza, will not be delivered to you, unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career; to begin, as I humbly hope from redeeming grace and divine mercy, a happy immortality.
New York, July 4, 1804
If it had been possible for me to have avoided the interview, my love for you and my precious children would have been alone a decisive motive. But it was not possible, without sacrifices which would have rendered me unworthy of your esteem. I need not tell you of the pangs I feel, from the idea of quitting you and exposing you to the anguish which I know you would feel. Nor could I dwell on the topic lest it should unman me.
The consolations of Religion, my beloved, can alone support you; and these you have a right to enjoy. Fly to the bosom of your God and be comforted. With my last idea I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world.
Adieu best of wives and best of Women. Embrace all my darling Children for me.
A HJuly 4. 1804
On July 11, 1804 Alexander Hamilton was mortally wounded in a duel with Aaron Burr, and would succumb to his wound the following day. This letter to his wife was written in the days prior, during which he noted his other reflections on the upcoming “interview."
I even hear the mountains
the way they laugh
up and down their blue sides
and down in the water
the fish cry
and the water
is their tears.
I listen to the water
on nights I drink away
and the sadness becomes so great
I hear it in my clock
it becomes knobs upon my dresser
it becomes paper on the floor
it becomes a shoehorn
a laundry ticket
climbing a chapel of dark vines. . .
it matters little
very little love is not so bad
or very little life
is waiting on walls
I was born for this
I was born to hustle roses down the avenues of the dead.
We were filled with the strong wine
of mutual struggle, one joined loud
and sonorous voice. We carried
each other along revolting, chanting,
cursing, crafting, making all new.
First Muriel, then Audre and Flo,
now Adrienne. I feel like a lone
pine remnant of virgin forest
when my peers have met the ax
and I weep ashes.
Yes, young voices are stirring now
the wind is rising, the sea boils
again, yet I feel age sucking
the marrow from my bones,
the loneliness of memory.
Their voices murmur in my inner
ear but never will I hear them
speak new words and no matter
how I cherish what they gave us
I want more, I still want more.