When, exactly, did this grammar of grief emerge? In my lifetime, it would seem to be the daily pages of biographies of 9/11 dead published in The New York Times’s landmark project, A Nation Challenged. And the homemade posters of the missing that flocked the walls and telephones of the city.
After Salvador kills you, all the earth falls silent. The birds nestle their young and quiet them, our dogs tuck their tails and hide beneath furniture, the winds collapse to the ground. Waves cease their rumbling. Currents sink into the depths. All the seas become as an open and sightless eye.
Paul Mariani’s latest collection of poems, All That Will Be New, just published by Slant Books, covers a wide variety of subjects and poetic forms. There are poems about particular classic paintings, about race relations, about death (including Christ’s), about Covid, about the trees and birds in his own yard, and more. The poetic forms range from free verse to iambic pentameter with ABBA rhyme scheme to terza rima.
It was the disaster in Ukraine that moved me to pull Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie from my shelf. Not having read it since graduate school days decades ago, I recalled nothing about it except its gloom. But that was enough to make it an appropriate companion for current events. Not that Sister Carrie is about war. But it is about violence: the violence with which society oppresses and even destroys individuals. The novel’s dominant color is dark.
One day, I will lose my early morning low-tide walk on Isle of Palms, South Carolina. I will lose my annotated copy of Man’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism by Abraham Joshua Heschel. I will lose my popcorn, and my jealousies (their house, their travels), and my wife’s smile that loosens knots in the chest…
Death is death. Death is also part of a larger story. I’m part of that story. I’m no longer hiding. No longer withholding. Since my father’s death, thousands of words. I’m living, yes, living with my father in the land of the dead.
My son and I have recently been enjoying the Opposites poems of Richard Wilbur.… These whimsical little verses came from a game Wilbur played with his family, where one person would choose a word and another person had to come up with that word’s opposite. I’m not sure what the rules were, exactly, but judging from the collection, extra points must have been awarded for unexpected opposites.
The way to paradise is through poetry: form. The way to infinity, through the finite: form. Perhaps possibility seems most out of reach when one has not committed oneself to attending to the demands and limits of form: temporal (say, meter or rhythm), spatial (say, a house or the physical universe). An ultimate temporal and spatial limit: life in a human body.
“What if you knew you’d be the last / to touch someone,” asks Ellen Bass in her poem “If You Knew.” Did my anticipation of my father’s death change the way I behaved with him while he was still alive? I don’t know. Might it change my attitude toward and treatment of others, including annoying others, if I remembered, in every encounter, that they’re going to die?
The hospice nurse spoke softly. It could be today or tomorrow. Was he the angel of death? The gentle angel of death? He was, after all, the one who met my father when he arrived at the in-patient hospice for his final two days in this world.
The gravedigger catches my eyes: his grizzled gray stubble and worn cap, the curly hank of yellow-gray hair riding his neck. Even in his mechanic’s fatigues, he looks like a monk I know— with the same hair and glasses, the same lean jaw. “I went from sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll to chastity, poverty, and obedience,” the monk likes to quip.
On the drive back from New Jersey to North Carolina two days after my father’s passing, I remember: Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish. I’ve owned it for twenty years. It’s one of those books that, when I purchased it, I felt I needed to read. I was the director of a small Center for Jewish Studies. And I was a poet, a Jewish poet. I needed the knowledge.
If you’ve been anywhere near the media in recent weeks, you’ve likely seen the archival photographs, indistinct and muddy, depicting the broken and blasted-out blocks that were all that was left of the city’s affluent Greenwood district—the “Black Wall Street”—after the mob was done with it. A mob that, as the reports tell us, included the Tulsa police force and the National Guard.
I’m living. I’m dying. I’m coming to an end. As I do, my wish is this: I’d like to stay awake, I’d like to pay attention as I live through the days between now and my last day at the university, between now and my last day, my last hour, my last human breath.
I’m thinking about Lefty because I worry about the growing disappearance of death—and by extension, the remembrance of death—from physical space in America. It’s not new: “Have you heard about the revolution in the funeral industry?” my brother the financial manager declared to me, years ago now—the growing preference for cremation over physical burial.
The reference is, of course, to Auden’s famous poem September 1, 1939. That poem contains the well-known line “we must love one another or die.” I say a well-known line, but that doesn’t really capture it now, does it? The line is more than well-known—it verges into the realm of sacred writings of our time, a scrap of prophecy left to us from the 20th century.