Archives for posts with tag: Grief

The American writer and essayist David Foster Wallace committed suicide seven years ago, on September 12, 2008. I have just read his wife’s – Karen Green – grief memoir Bough Down, a beautiful and moving collage of poetry, prose and images.

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Green found her husband following his suicide:

‘I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down. I keep hearing that sound…’

‘The policeman asks, Why did I cut you down. The question abides in the present tense. Because I thought and still think maybe.’

Bough Down is a wonderfully strange read, sometimes challenging to follow Green’s train of thought. But perhaps that is how it should be. The experience of grief, and of love, are ultimately subjective and individual, uniquely lived by those affected.

‘It’s hard to remember tender things tenderly.’

‘I have few desires and fewer aims. I dream of standing on the shore and not seeing his ear whorls in every shell.’

Pine, to wither away from longing or grief.’

Green addresses Foster Wallace throughout, Bough Down unfolding as a love soliloquy:

‘I could love another face, but why?’

The depths of Green’s distress are compounded by the nature of his death:

‘I call the doctor: I am suffering, it’s embarrassing, and I need I need I need…The doctor says if you were so quote perfect for me unquote you’d probably still be around, no offense.’

This is a gem of a book, raw, honest, challenging, sad and beautiful.

‘Ultimately, the loss becomes immortal and hole is more familiar than tooth. The tongue worries the phantom root, the mind scans the heart’s chambers to verify its emptiness. There is the thing itself and then there is the predicament of the cavity.’

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CQ

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I have just finished reading Magda Szabo’s Iza’s Ballad. This is the Hungarian writer’s lesser known novel. Her later The Door (1987) first brought her work to the wider attention of the international reading community.

Iza’s Ballad (Pilátus in the original Hungarian) was written much earlier, in 1963, but has only recently appeared in English, translated by George Szirtes.

Szabo immediately draws the reader into a world of grief, its confusions and complexities, through the eyes of the elderly Ettie, whose husband has just died:

‘She felt as if some elemental blow had destroyed everything around her and that only now did she really know what it was to be a widow, someone absolutely abandoned.’

Widowhood brings desolation – ‘her very breath a form of sadness’ – and profound aloneness in a world where ‘the dead did not answer’.

I was reminded of another work of fiction that also has at its core the grief that follows the death of a spouse. In Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster (2014), Nora’s husband has died prematurely, and she is suddenly catapulted into an alienating and isolating world:

‘So this was what being alone was like, she thought. It was not the solitude she had been going through, nor the moments when she felt his death like a shock to her system, as though she had been in a car accident, it was this wandering in a sea of people with the anchor lifted, and all of it oddly pointless and confusing.’

Tóibín also considers how society deals with the bereaved, highlighting a wider need to have grief ultimately contained, if not annihilated:

‘ “And stop grieving, Nora. The time for that is over. Do you hear me?” ‘

In an article on the topic of grief and literature by Tóibín shortly after the publication of Nora Webster, the author draws our attention to other works that exemplify the theme, including Mary Lavin’s The Widow’s Son, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Anne Carson’s Grief Lessons, CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, and Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life [http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/02/colm-toibin-literature-of-grief].

I have just re-read Barnes’s Levels of Life. The writer’s wife of 30 years, Pat Kavanagh, died within 37 days – ‘from a summer to an autumn’ – of diagnosis of a brain tumour. The final chapter of the book – The Loss of Depth – deals specifically with Barnes’s grief following Kavanagh’s death:

‘And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.’

And:

‘Grief reconfigures time, its length, its texture, its function: one day means no more than the next, so why have they been picked out and given separate names? It also reconfigures space. You have entered a new geography, mapped by a new cartography.’

Barnes addresses the difference between grief and mourning:

‘Grief is vertical – and vertiginous – while mourning is horizontal.’

He concludes:

‘And so, perhaps, with grief. We imagine we have battled against it, been purposeful, overcome sorrow, scrubbed the rust from our soul, when all that has happened is that grief has moved elsewhere, shifted its interest.’

There are very many works of literature  – fiction, non-fiction, poetry – that hold grief as the central theme. A list of such works, like grief itself, can never be finite, or closed. Grief touches all our lives, an essential and unavoidable component of the lived experience. Within the words of those who have chosen to share such experiences we might come to discover a kindred compassion and empathy that goes some way towards defining our humanness and our salvation.

CQ

Jon Sanders follow up to the earlier Late September is also a quintessentially British and theatrical piece. Set in Kent, Back to the Garden features the reunion of actor friends one year on from the death of one of the group. His widow remains stuck in her grief, and the film delves into and around issues of loss, of the meaning of mortality, and how terrifying the finality of death can be.

For the grieving widow, she now realises how totally bound up in her marriage, and in their love, her own identity had been. Following her husband’s death, it is as if she has not only lost him, but has also lost her self.

Her friends gently probe and question her feelings and her experience of grief.

‘Are you still in love with a dead person?’, one asks. An intriguing question, and one that proved hard to definitively answer, despite the fact that love was clearly consistently central to their relationship.

‘Does time heal?’, asks another. No, but taking one day at a time helps.

‘Is death the annihilation of self?’ ‘Do we just, stop?’ Also unanswerable and unknowable, but the discussions around these and other questions were illuminating.

Similar to his earlier work, Sanders encouraged improvisation in this recent release. This approach heightens the natural feel to the film, and its authenticity, and serves to make the experience of watching and listening to Back to the Garden real, thought provoking, and lingering.

 

 

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Susan Hill’s novel, written in 1974, is a story about loss, relationships, and about how we mourn.

The acute loss central to the story results from the sudden death of Ruth’s young husband Ben. However, a more global pre-existing loss is also unmasked by the tragedy.

Ruth is devastated by Ben’s death, and inhabits a place of unremitting despair where she is untouchable by others. Reluctantly, she attends the funeral, where she resents the mourning of others:

‘She imagined the line of dark mourners mounting the stairs and peering into the coffin. As Ben. Ben. How could they? How could so many people have touched him and looked at him, unasked, since the moment of his death, when she herself had not?

But it was better. She thought, they don’t have Ben.’

‘They were forcing her to take part in some curious ritual of their own…’

My sister’s husband died a few years ago, and I can see her response to his death, and to fellow-mourners, in Ruth’s behaviour. At the time, I struggled with my sister’s reaction, as I tried to deal with both his loss from our lives and also her belief that only she was entitled to mourn this loss.

Ruth, with time, comes to realise the wide-reaching effects of Ben’s death:

‘The death of Ben Bryce had been like a stone cast into still water, and the water had become a whirlpool with Ruth sucked down into the terrible heart of it. But the waves spread out, through the countryside down to the village and beyond the village. People felt changed, as if by war or earthquake or fire, even those who lived closest to death and knew its face.’

She comes to acknowledge her behaviour at the time:

‘But she had been too wrapped up, first within the warm womb of her happiness with Ben, and then in the cold shell of grief. She had not thought of anyone.’

We read to find ourselves, and to witness experiences that resonate with our own. Thus, within In the Springtime of the Year, I found some consolation in its echoes of my sister’s reaction to her husband’s death:

‘…she had kept Ben’s death to herself, as a private thing, tried to possess it utterly and allow no one else the right to mourn…’

CQ

The poet, novelist, playwright and doctor Dannie Abse kept a diary for a year following the death of his wife Joan as a result of a car accident in 2005.

In his first diary entry, some 4 months after Joan’s death, Abse writes:

‘The past survives however much one tries to drive it down and away from one’s consciousness.’

The diary presents itself as both a living record of loss, loneliness and grief, and also a reflection on the past, a looking back. Most entries start with the current date and end with a ‘Then’ section, which relives a memory from Abse’s earlier life, and often one that also includes Joan.

Abse shares the mundane realities that confront the bereaved, as letters continue to arrive addressed to his now dead wife. He includes a poem by Peter Porter, written after Porter’s own wife’s death:

‘A card comes to tell you

you should report

to have your eyes tested.

But your eyes melted in the fire…

and the only tears, which soon dried,

fell in the chapel.

Other things still come –

invoices, subscriptions, renewals,

shiny plastic cards promising credit –

not much for a life spent

in the service of reality…’

Abse is not self-indulgent or maudlin in his grief, and is not seeking our sympathy. The diary was not originally intended for publication, evolving more as a tool for coping with loss, a response to an inner voice saying ‘Physician, heal thyself.’ Thus, the diary became a ‘prescription for self-regeneration.’ However, as the diary progresses he acknowledges that he did presuppose another reader.

Abse tells it like it is. One diary entry just contains the short sentence ‘I cry, therefore I am.’ On another occasion, when asked by a friend how he was coping, he tells us that ‘I confessed, perhaps melodramatically, that for intermittent hours each day I feel like an exile in the Land of Desolation.’

He cries frequently, often waking up with tears in his eyes. A new experience for him, since Joan’s death Abse does not find it difficult to unsettle ‘the too prompt tearducts of my eyes.’

The diary is not all about grief, but more about a life that continues within that loss. Abse speaks of Freud, of current events such as the Iraq war, as well as past events in his own life as a doctor and as a poet. He also includes his own poetry, and speaks of other writers, such as Elias Canetti and the poet Owen Shears.

Abse muses on his own life as a poet:

‘I’ve often thought of poetry as a vocation, even a destiny, rather than a career but sometimes I wish that on certain occasions in my life I had not retreated from the limelight.’

During the year of diary writing, Abse’s older brother dies:

‘I weep for Wilfred. Yet it is hard to mourn for more than one person at a time.’

And Joan’s loss is immense. He remembers the grief he experienced when his parents died, yet it was incomparable to his profound sense of loss following his wife’s death:

‘But I have been so dependent on Joan. Absolutely. Mentally, emotionally, physically.’

Six months after the accident:

‘…as I remember this or think that, my eyes leak like a tap with a half-perished washer. I am, I feel, leading a posthumous life.’

Yet, he can also see that ‘I’m OK. I’m coping. I’m limping along.’ while at the same time accepting that ‘I miss Joan.’

He acknowledges that his grief is not an illness, ‘I’m not clinically depressed. Merely unhappy.’

Eventually, Abse finds his way back into poetry, both writing and reading again in public.

‘Authors, poets, are supposed to be imaginative people but I didn’t, couldn’t picture my life without Joan. Everything is so other. The very silence has changed. It is the very silence of the abyss.’

One of these poetry readings ends with the short poem Valediction:

‘In this exile people call old age

I live between nostalgia and rage.

This is the land of fools and fear.

Thanks be. I’m lucky to be here.’

As he approaches the end of the year since Joan’s death, and the end of his diary entries, Abse wonders whether he will miss the writing ‘not only for my health’s sake’, but also because ‘For doing so has allowed me sometimes the pleasure of escaping into a benign Past. The Past, indeed, can sometimes be a sanctuary.’

‘There is no happy ending’, yet Abse does not leave one feeling desolate. I was touched by his openness, as well as by a realism that allowed for many emotions to sit alongside each other. Abse’s life following Joan’s death reads as one that embraced his unmeasurable loss, and one that allowed grief to accompany rather than to destroy.

The diary ends with Abse’s poem Lachrymae:

‘She is everywhere and nowhere

now that I am less than one…’

‘…Now, solemn, I watch

the spellbound moon again,

its unfocused clone drowned

in Hampstead’s rush-dark pond

where a lone swan sings

without a sound.’

CQ

I Could Read The Sky, written by Timothy O’Grady with photographs by Steve Pyke, first appeared in 1997.

The photographic novel was later adapted by Nichola Bruce to create a film of the same name (1999). I recently received a gift of Iarla O’Lionaird’s haunting accompanying soundtrack, which also features Sinead O’Connor, Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, Noel Hill and Liam O’Maonlai. The music inspired me to re-explore both the book and the film.

A deeply melancholic and tragic narrative, I Could Read The Sky has loss, poverty, isolation and loneliness at its core.

It tells the story of one man, as he looks back on his life from solitary old age in Kentish Town. We get flashbacks of growing up in Ireland and of his life after leaving his native land to find work in England. The book unfolds as memories, as a looking back, to what has constituted a life.

The tone of the book is set at the outset, with a poem by Peter Woods on exile:

‘Exile is not a word

It is a sound

The rending of skin

A fistful of clay on top

of a coffin.’

We first see the lone figure in a Kentish Town bedsit:

‘This is me. I have a round bald head. My eyes are blue and watery and my fingers are stained with tobacco. I am alone here with a black dog. I sleep badly.’

His life in England has variously included working in a beet factory in Ipswich, slab laying in Bedford, and working with drainage pipes in Coventry, before settling in London amongst his compatriots:

‘There are men on the Kilburn High Road you can only see unfinished buildings in their eyes.’

He shares his flashbacks and memories, ‘sounds and pictures but they flit and crash before I can get them’, images of long-left Ireland and Labasheeda (‘The day of the Stations is a big day’) interspersed with the reality of his today:

‘I open my eyes in Kentish Town. Always this neutral air.’

‘A chair beside the bed. Tablets. A shirt with little blue squares, the collar shot. A bottle of Guinness here and another on the ledge. Maggie’s rosary, crystal beads.’

‘A wardrobe made my people I’ve never met.’

We return again and again to the Kentish Town bedsit:

‘I roll onto my side. The wardrobe door is open, Maggie’s dress with the bluebell’s hanging there.’

Maggie was the love of his life, and her death its greatest tragedy. The story of how they met, and what she meant to him, is a most beautiful and moving thread that weaves through the narrative.

‘I’ll not be leaving Kentish Town now except in a brown box and when I do I’ll be going to Labasheeda to lie with Maggie. I’ve left the instructions.’

His grief is almost tangible:

‘What is it to miss someone? It is not the throbbing ache of a wound. It is not the pain you get under your ribs from running. It is not a befouled feeling, the feeling of being in mud. It is the feeling of being in a strange place and losing direction. It is the feeling of looking without seeing and eating without tasting. It is forgetfulness, the inability to move, the inability to connect. It is a sentence you must serve and if the person you miss is dead your sentence is long.’

As fragments of his past and present life come and go, he pieces together a list of sorts:

‘What I could do.

I could mend nets. Thatch a roof. Build stairs…I could dance sets. Read the sky…Make a field…I could read the sea…Shear sheep. Remember poems. Set potatoes…Read the wind…Make a coffin. Take a drink. I could frighten you with stories.’

‘What I couldn’t do.

Eat a meal lacking potatoes. Trust banks. Wear a watch…Drink coffee…Follow cricket. Understand the speech of a man from west Kerry…Speak with men wearing collars. Stay afloat in water. Understand their jokes. Face the dentist. Kill a Sunday. Stop remembering.’

It makes you think about what we are, what constitutes our lives, lists of dos and don’ts, the memories we hang onto and those we forget, the people of our lives…

Watching the film again after re-reading the book, I love the collage of images, music and voices that interplay on the screen. How fragmented and bitty our lives in reality are, and the challenge is to try and pull it all together and somehow create a meaningful whole…

‘I remember loneliness and the walls of Quex Road. I remember pure sadness.’

CQ

This collection from the Australian poet Peter Porter (who lived in Paddington, London, from 1968 until his death in 2010) first appeared in 1978.

The Cost of Seriousness was written in the aftermath of tragedy, Porter’s wife having committed suicide in 1974. In the preface, the poet states that the book’s ‘controlling theme is a lament for my first wife.’ This is most overtly seen in two laments, An Exequy and The Delegate.

From An Exequy:

‘In wet May, in months of change,

In a country you wouldn’t visit, strange

Dreams pursue me in my sleep,

Black creatures of the upper deep –

Though you are five months dead, I see

You in guilt’s iconography…’

‘The words and faces proper to

My misery are private…

…The channels of our lives are blocked,

The hand is stopped upon the clock,

No-one can say why hearts will break

And marriages are all opaque:

A map of loss, some posted cards,

The living house reduced to shards,

The abstract hell of memory,

The pointlessness of poetry – ….’

Despite this last line, Porter viewed poetry as “a tub into which you can pour anything”.

For poets (Christopher Reid’s A Scattering comes to mind), writing about traumatic life experiences appears to be less an issue of choice than a compulsion. For Porter:

“I never intended to make those events my subject…but there was a compulsion, something my better self couldn’t suppress. It’s not a question of telling the truth or a lie; it’s not even a question of special pleading. It’s a question of the mind being forced to find a way of dealing with something, not in extenuation and not in therapy, but as a means of presenting the material to itself. I was writing for myself. Poetry was its own answer, its own end.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2009/feb/07/peter-porter-interview-poetry)

The poet Christopher Reid, whose collection A Scattering concerns his wife Lucinda’s illness, dying and the aftermath of her death, said something not so dissimilar:

“[Poems] must be truthful and they must have a specific formal beauty to them. It is when you bring these two things together – deep emotion and technique – that you get something genuine.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2011/oct/28/christopher-reid-life-in-writing)

And that is largely why I love poetry and why it is so important in my life: its capacity to combine the aesthetic with the authentic to create something real and immediate, and its potential to communicate that which might otherwise elude language and a shareable experience.

CQ

… and I am with the poet on this one.

From The North Ship:

‘XVIII

If grief could burn out

Like a sunken coal,

The heart would rest quiet,

The unrent soul

Be still as a veil;

But I have watched all night

The fire grow silent,

The grey ash soft:

And I stir the stubborn flint

The flames have left,

And grief stirs, and the deft

Heart lies impotent.’

CQ

I really enjoyed Barry’s earlier novel The Secret Scripture, although I was a little taken aback by the final denouement, which felt a little contrived, and unnecessary. The book had been magical up to that point.

Nonetheless, I eagerly began On Canaan’s Side this week, and finished it within very few days. Barry’s prose is seductive and addictive, creating a narrative that you do not want to leave.

Similar to The Secret Scripture, On Canaan’s Side has an elderly Irish woman as the main protagonist. In both, she looks back and tells her story. There the similarities pretty much end, and I did not feel that Barry was regurgitating a trope.

Like Colm Toibin (particularly in Brooklyn), Barry writes so sympathetically and impressively from a female perspective.

On Canaan’s Side opens with:

‘What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking? It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small slight sound.’

Lilly’s story is that of a life beset and consumed by tragedy, and there is little in terms of redemption or relief from sadness throughout. As such, it is very much an ‘Irish book’. We are good at tragedy, and On Canaan’s Side does feel authentic, from this, but not only this, perspective.

Barry writes beautifully, and there are very many sentences and phrases throughout that make you stop, and consider:

‘Tears have a better character cried alone.’

Tragedy begins early for Lilly, as she remembers events from almost 80 years earlier, when growing up in Ireland:

‘The grief at first sat in us, and then leaked out into the chairs, and at last into the very walls and sat in the mortar.’

The memories of those times, the almost palpable grief, never leave Lilly, shadowing her life throughout:

‘We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chicken-pox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation against that.’

I was intrigued by Lilly’s assessment of her doctor, Dr Earnshaw. This is a discussion for another day, perhaps:

‘But he is very austere, and depressed-looking, and he never smiles. You can have confidence in a man like that, though, in the manner of doctoring.’

Lilly leaves Ireland, settling in America, where she initially spends much time lost and alone ‘a prisoner in the open asylum of the world.’ Her best possession at that point, she reflects, was her youth, ‘but that of course was invisible to me.’

Despite the tragedy and sorrow that follow Lilly throughout her long life, this is not a book of sadness. Uplifting perhaps not, but very real and believable, and in its own way life affirming. Similar to The Secret Scripture, I was unsure about the denouement. But I had already loved the book, and Lilly, at that point, and there was no going back. It is more of a mild niggle…

Life, loss, love, grief, tragedy, remembering and memory are all the stuff of life, and so it seems of Barry’s fiction-yet-real novels:

‘To remember sometimes is a great sorrow, but when the remembering has been done, there comes afterwards a very curious peacefulness.’

CQ

Amazing.

This is superb cinematography, and tragic poetry on the screen.

The acting is also truly impressive, but what I loved most about this gem, was the fact that it refused to offer redemption as feel-good closure. It is a disturbing film that very successfully highlights what it means to be human, and thus vulnerable, uncertain, alone, suffering, lost, and struggling with the confusion that is life, and how we negotiate relationships, loss, grief, and love…

CQ