I needed a poem about loss.
Or rather, I needed a poem about death—your death, the loss of you, my loss.
And while I know that death and loss must be right up there with love as a subject for poetry, I’m realizing that I don’t know much about any of it, about loss in particular—and consequently need the help of art to say something meaningful to you, though perhaps now it can only be about you, since we ran out of time, suddenly, and you’re gone.
None of the poems about loss that I know best seemed to say quite the right thing. Or rather, they said exactly the right thing, but I wasn’t sure that people would understand what I meant.
Which people? Well, not you, I suppose. Rather, in your absence, I was thinking mostly of your family, your friends, our friends, who might read a poem or two if I posted them on Facebook, as we do now, to perform our mourning in public. Would you approve of my choices? You aren’t here to read them now, and I never shared them with you in life, because who could ever have imagined that we’d need poems about death? —until we did, and now it’s too late.
You weren’t supposed to go, not now, not for a long time, so all of us were taken by surprise. We—I, we, you—were in the middle of things begun with blithe cluelessness of impending finality. While you were on the way from being there to not being there, it was a beautiful summer day, and I was here, trekking through moss gardens, over rocks and roots, to a summit, where, exhausted and accomplished, I was grateful for sky, mountains, little birds, and a body that, however grudgingly, had brought me so far. What were you doing? what were your plans, in the moment before your body betrayed you, and took you… farther, too far, farthest?
In the middle of things, you died. In the middle of things, I learned that you were dying, and thought the simultaneity strange, impossible. Present, absent; joy, sadness; everything, nothing.
“[T]he sun shone/As it had to….”
Even as you stopped, we carried on. Unfathomable, “how everything turns away/Quite leisurely from the disaster.”
That’s WH Auden’s “Musee Des Beaux Arts,” which is one of the poems that I thought of, as you were dying:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…
Auden is responding to Breughel’s depiction of the fall of Icarus, where the boy, giddy with the power of flight, dares to climb too close to the sun, too close to the divine; as punishment for his temerity, his waxen wings melt, and he plunges to his death. It’s an adventure story combined with a cautionary moral, a warning about vanity told on a mythic scale. But what Auden loves is how Breughel deliberately shifts the focus from foolish mythical boys and cruel gods, to the ordinary people of his world whose lives are heroic and glorious in their ordinariness, people like you and me, who try to love and do good in the sphere we’ve been given, and who have to carry on in the midst of tragedy, partly because we don’t have a choice, and partly because it’s through being gratefully-immersed in the pain and joys of this world that we give meaning to one another’s lives.
I think you’d like Auden’s poem, including the bit where, “in a corner, some untidy spot/…the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse/Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.” I think you’d understand why I’ve had the poem on my mind since I first heard you were going to die. I think that at the idea of the horses scratching, you’d laugh and snort and revel in the irreverence, and the deliberate incongruity with the grand tragedy taking place in the background.
I think all of those things about what you’d like, but I really don’t know. I suppose we hadn’t known one another all that well in a very long time. I only heard about your death third-hand, from a mutual friend, who had in turn heard it from your best friend. I had a moment of confusion: wait, I’m your best friend, I thought. Wait: you and I were best friends once, growing apart very quickly after high school. I had imagined, then, that you disapproved of me, somehow. Years later, you said that you had thought that I couldn’t be bothered with you, that my life was moving too fast while yours wasn’t. We had both felt left behind by the other. A stupid misunderstanding. We were both grateful to have had the chance to reconnect. The friendship was still there, strong as ever. We kept promising to call more, to visit more, but you were busy and I was busy, and we didn’t, and we thought we had more time. And we didn’t.
When I found out that you had died, part of my sadness was that I didn’t feel more sad, because perhaps we’d already lost too much of one another too long ago.
Which is why I think you’d like this one, “One Art,” by Elizabeth Bishop:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master…
…I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
She’s trying to be wry and witty to downplay how much pain she’s in, something you and I are (were?) good at, I think, though perhaps I know my ideas about you better than I knew you, yourself. That’s why I like the poem, because it’s all about losing things through carelessness—only, by things, Bishop means connections, ties, to the people, who we like to think are too precious to misplace, neglect, and forget about in the same heedless way that we forget our keys or our pens—making it all the more shameful, deserving of chastisement, when we discover what we have lost. That we have done the losing.
And, see, this is why I figured that the people I don’t know (in the life of yours that I didn’t know) wouldn’t appreciate this particular poem, because it’s not about the loss of you, not really, it’s more about how I feel about the loss of you, about my loss, about me. I’m at a loss for words, because I didn’t know you, because I misplaced you, and (“write it”) I shouldn’t have. I guess it could be fair to accuse you of the same thing, once, of having misplaced me—but not now, because you’re not here to defend yourself, and it’s unseemly to make recriminations about someone who’s passed away. Passed. Past.
You see what I mean: there must be thousands of poems about loss, and yet I hardly know any, because what do I know about loss? what do I know about the loss of you? I know absence; I know a lot of words that do nothing to fill it. Did those two poems say what I needed to? Because that’s the point, right?—that a good poem can speak better, mean more, than clumsy, regular words, especially the words we never actually utter, because we’re hurt, or afraid, or because we’re caught up in living as best as we can and we just figure we’ll have a chance to say the important words sooner, or later, and we don’t know how entirely wrong we are.