Grief-struck Remedies – Poems on Sorrow and Grief

A merganser is clucking in front of me in a little bay near our cabin on Cortes Island, B.C. I call it clucking but it sounds also like little honks. So much my ear and mouth cannot translate. Oh! This untranslatable world. Even a wing. A prayer. These mysteries that take flight- impossible the realities that tease and taunt us. But I see them, hear them. Will I ever truly know them?

In spite of this beauty of a morning as I look over Desolation Sound, ninety miles northwest of Vancouver I am thinking of loss, of grief. I am thinking of a friend whose daughter lost her twenty nine year old partner in late May to cancer just weeks before they were to be married. I was thinking of my friend’s fifty year old son who died last week from his addictions.

Grief. It knows me, it knows us. It has been stalking us ever since something came out of nothing and that something failed, went back to nothing and turned to something else, Nothing to something and on and on until we are the something. And we make something out of nothing. And then, and then these somethings end. Now, my friend’s daughter’s partner, My other friend’s son. Too soon. Always too soon.

The world of dew
is the world of dew.
And yet, and yet—
—”Haiku” (1819) by Issa

Issa wrote this just after the death of his infant daughter, Sato. Ah. And awe, too. And, and! The repetitions here. A drop of dew. A world. Complete and whole. For a moment eternal. Everlasting. But then… the and yet, twice. How to reconcile us to the and yets in our lives. How to reconcile us to, as American poet Stanley Kunitz says, our feast of losses. The blade of grass holding something so vast – a dew drop. Then, the drop vanishes. The blade stays green a little longer.

Do our losses feed us in some strange way? If so, such a difficult meal. And the long after-taste of sorrow.

Here are three poems that take us inside the not always foreign country of grief and sorrow. One by David Whyte from his New and Selected Poems 1984-2007 and two poems by Denise Levertov from Selected Poems, New Directions, 2002:

Last Night

Last night they came with news of death
not knowing what I would say.

I wanted to say,
“The green wind is running through the fields
making the grass lie flat.”

I wanted to say,
“The apple blossom flakes like ash
covering the orchard wall.”

I wanted to say,
“the fish float belly up in the slow stream,
stepping stones to the dead.”

They asked if I would sleep that night,
I said I did not know.

For this loss I could not speak,
the tongue lay idle in a great darkness,
the heart was strangely open,
the moon had gone,
and it was then
when I said, “He is no longer here”
that the night put its arms around me
and all the white stars turned bitter with grief.

David Whyte

This poem captured me from the moment I first read it years ago. The repeated I wanted to say pulls me back into poetry’s spell again and again. The words that come back out of the dark again like Persephone. And we are Demeter. And they will go back, yes. But we can name them when they are in the light. We can have the courage to hold that substance, both light and dark in our hands and know even if for a moment, they are one and one does not negate the other..

Talking to Grief

Ah, grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog,
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.

I should coax you
into the house and give you
my own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.

You think I don’t know you’ve been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your name,
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
to consider
my house your own
and me your person
and yourself
my own dog.

Denise Levertov

To call the grief-dog back into our home. To give it a place inside not starve it outside with stained handkerchiefs stuffed into our ears so we can’t hear its howls. Such courage.

To Speak

To speak of sorrow
works upon it
                     moves it from its
crouched place barring
the way to and from the soul’s hall –
Out in the light it
shows clear whether
shrunken or known as
a giant wrath –
at least, where before

its great shadow joined
the walls and roof and seemed
to uphold the hall like a beam.

Denise Levertov

My daughter woke up late this morning and while I fussed about the house having come up from the beach where I wrote most of this, she wrote an astonishing poem prompted by a line I had said – Don’t drink out of unwashed glasses. Here are two lines from that poem:

The loot of the world, the forgotten things:
the treasure, the garbage – both the same thing.

At twenty three she can write this. More and more of these moments when the daughter becomes teacher to the father.

Her poem, my daughter says, was influenced by the swing and cadenced talk of a poem by Adrian Blevins (1964 – ), whose poetic astringencies become the exigencies for me to examine where the worms turn over the earth in my life. Blevins is a southern-US-writer now teaching at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. For her book The Brass Girl Brouhaha published in 2003 she chose this epigraph from Marilynne Robinson’s book Homecoming:

For families will not be broken. Curse and expel them, send their children wandering, drown them in floods and fires, and old women will make songs out of all these sorrows and sit in the porches and sing them on mild evenings. Every sorrow suggests a thousand songs, and every song recalls a thousand sorrows, and they are infinite in number, and all the same.

No matter the age, or gender, what stories, what songs we can make from our sorrows. And, dare I say, joys. And somehow may it be that our families, through their singing, will not be broken; that the old women will always sing and teach that grace to young and old, men and women alike.

As I write this I think of the letter a dear friend wrote me when my father died in 1997. In the letter was a quote from Samuel Beckett, the novelist and playwright (Waiting for Godot) included in a sympathy note Beckett had written to a friend of hers:

I know your sorrow and I know that for the likes of us there is no ease for the heart to be had from words of reason and that in the very assurance of sorrow’s fading there is more sorrow. So I offer you only my deep and affectionate and compassionate thoughts and wish for you only that the strange thing may never fail you, whatever it is, that gives us the strength to live on and on with our wounds.

That strange thing that enables us to live on and on with our wounds. May we all be given the grace of that. And may we always find poems to nurture and feed that strange thing.

Here are two more poems for that nurtuing:

What Is Sorrow For?

What is sorrow for? It is a storehouse
Where we store wheat, barley, corn and tears.
We step to the door on a round stone,
And the storehouse feeds all the birds of sorrow.
And I say to myself: Will you have
Sorrow at last? Go on, be cheerful in autumn,
Be stoic, yes, be tranquil, calm;
Or in the valley of sorrows spread your wings.

Robert Bly, from  Talking Into the Ear of a Donkey,  Norton, 2011


The time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer
and I did not die.
Surely God had His hand in this,

as well as friends,
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,

was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it–
books, bricks, grief–
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

Have you heard the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe

also troubled–
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep wave,
a love
to which there is no reply?

Mary Oliver (1935 – ) from Evidence


Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *