|The Angel Gabriel Appearing to Zacharias by William Blake|
The past two months, I have lost four people from my life. Two were old enough that people would say they had a good, long life. Two were old but still young enough that everyone felt their,lives had been cut short.
Friends tell me that I am never without something to say. Choose your adjective depending on how that talkative person feels in your world - chatty, loquacious, garrulous, voluble, conversational, communicative. But often when someone I know dies, words fail me, and the closer I feel to that person, the greater the failure of words to come.
As poets or readers of poetry, we often turn to other poets' words for consolation.
A few years ago, Edward Hirsch published a book of poems called Gabriel: A Poem about his adopted son who died at age 22 in 2011.
This was his “reckless boy” who had a troubled life. Hirsch said “There’s something really unnatural about losing a child, and there’s something unnatural about having to write an elegy for your child, but I felt that I wanted people to know what he was like.”
I bought the book two years ago and have never been able to read more than a few pages at a time. The opening lines - "The funeral director opened the coffin / And there he was alone / From the waist up” - stopped me on first reading.
The poem consists of more than 700 three-line stanzas. It has a rushing feel without punctuation of momentum sometimes out of control. That is an odd form for an elegy which I generally think of as being as slow as some heavy organ music in a cathedral.
His poem is roughly chronological and begins with the happiness of the adoption and the energy of youth.
With so much energy he was like a wound top,And then comes multiple diagnoses and the various/ Specialists who plagued us with help” and the ineffective drugs.
He could almost fly a kite when there was no wind.
The population of his feelingsAnd finally, the looking back, the what-ifs and doubts.
Could not be governed
By the authorities.
Maybe we were too hard on him/ Maybe we were too soft.
That God, which ever lives and loves,
One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves.
I will not forgive youHirsch's poem is too long - and probably too difficult - to use for this prompt, but we have no shortage of poems of lamentation and other topics that go into dark places to consider.
Until you give me back my son.
February is our coldest month in much of the Northern Hemisphere and no doubt the season is also driving this prompt for me.
"Darkness" by Lord Byron (George Gordon) opens with lines that have always seemed to explain that feeling of waking up in a dark place, even if the sun was shining. Whether that darkness comes from a loss or a darkness in ourselves.
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
Byron’s poem was literally inspired in part by a “year without a summer,” 1816, that was caused by the clouds of ash from the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. Many people interpreted it as the end of the world. Byron took this sense of apocalypse to express a pessimism about nature.
Turning the pages in a thick anthology, I also reread TS Eliot’s "East Coker." This meditation on mortality is the third section of his Four Quartets.
In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur, and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.
The Londoners of the poem seem to live in his Waste Land, a place landscaped by war. They are forced to enter the darkness of the unlit underground stations to escape the nightly air raids.
A more modern poem by Stanley Kunitz that I have always been affected by is "The Portrait" which begins:
My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
when I was waiting to be born.
For this February prompt, we go to dark places. Those places can be real and quite literally dark, or imagined and dark in the many figurative ways we use that word. The darkness of night, of death, depression, lamentation and loss is different and the same. We don't want to go to these dark places, but, especially as writers, we do go there. Going there might not be a choice, but sometimes we put ourselves there.
Keep a light nearby and a hand on the wall for support and walk carefully.
SUBMISSION DEADLINE: February 29, 2016
In 2014, Ron Charles interviewed Ed Hirsch for “The Life of a Poet” series and Hirsch talked about Gabriel, though he would not read from it.