Poets have lots of secret partners. We couldn't do our work without them. We've described some of them in past weeks—the music of language, the shapely power of forms, and, of course, the world itself with its insistent pleas for our attention. One silent partner is death. Some of the world's greatest poetry is called to the surface by death's patient, shadowy presence in every life, as poets rage, weep, console, accept. Poetry might pay tribute to a loved one or try to untangle and reconcile a troubled relationship. It might be about our own impending death when we face a serious illness or even when we're perfectly well but suddenly aware of our mortality. We often hear that young people take crazy risks because they think they'll never die. It might be true that a lucky few haven't come face to face with death; but by the time they're teenagers, many have lost friends or family members to sickness, accidents, suicide, or violence. In some neighborhoods and cities, here and around the world, young people like my student Hawo watch as government soldiers gun down her brother. Hawo wrote these lines in her "Childhood Memory Poem":
I remember the killer living and smiling.
I remember one naked face.
Like love, death draws to itself a swarm of clichés and truisms, usually in a sincere effort to give comfort. Poetry's work is to put into words the ways in which every death is the same and every death is different and to honor but not smooth out the entanglement of death and life. I wrote this poem shortly after my friend's partner died; I'm simply telling the story as he told it to me.
For Ozzie and Stephen
He could walk through the house and garage dry-eyed
even though the grand piano, its lid open hopefully
and the bench was still raised
to fit his long legs;
even though half-read books lay on his night stand
with flower bookmarks
to show the page where he had to stop reading;
and even though his camera’s bright eye was shuttered
and his garden tools—hoes, trowels, clippers—
were clean and ready for Spring planting
and his bicycle oiled and shining
eager for long rides in the countryside.
Each left only a bruise as he passed by
and a dull ache.
Then, after the guests had left,
he carried a bucket of funeral food and spent flowers
to the compost pile.
He turned up the compost with the old spading fork
as Stephen had showed him.
All alone, except for memories,
He held the bucket close and wept,
as the smells rose up—of death and decay
and the brown warmth of new earth, forming itself
from scraps of life.
--Mara Faulkner, OSB
Invitation for your writing:
What objects, gestures, or habits—the more ordinary, the better—would bring back to the life of poetry a lost relationship or a person who has died? If you like, call your poem "After" or "Before."