Tag Archives: grief

‘How it is’ by Maxine Kumin

Shall I say how it is in your clothes?
A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.
The dog at the center of my life recognizes
you’ve come to visit, he’s ecstatic.
In the left pocket, a hole.
In the right, a parking ticket
delivered up last August on Bay State Road.
In my heart, a scatter like milkweed,
a flinging from the pods of the soul.
My skin presses your old outline.
It is hot and dry inside.

I think of the last day of your life,
old friend, how I would unwind it, paste
it together in a different collage,
back from the death car idling in the garage,
back up the stairs, your praying hands unlaced,
reassembling the bits of bread and tuna fish
into a ceremony of sandwich,
running the home movie backward to a space
we could be easy in, a kitchen place
with vodka and ice, our words like living meat.

Dear friend, you have excited crowds
with your example. They swell
like wine bags, straining at your seams.
I will be years gathering up our words,
fishing out letters, snapshots, stains,
leaning my ribs against this durable cloth
to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.

This poem was written about the poet Anne Sexton, after her suicide in 1974. Maxine Kumin was a contemporary and close friend of Sexton.

How it is is the first poem that I have read by Kumin, and it struck me particularly because, although it is about a poet that I admire enormously for her craft, here we see grief for a friend — for someone who had holes in her pockets, got parking tickets, and chatted over “vodka and ice in the kitchen”. This is a poem not for a literary myth or persona, but for a real person — a “Dear friend” — and it is this quality that makes it most interesting and touching for me.

The poem begins and ends with Anne Sexton’s “blue blazer”, and I think this has great significance. Kumin writes that she wears it “a month after your death”, and that it is full of memories (the holes and parking tickets mentioned above.) I think that the image of her donning this blazer could be read to represent Kumin donning the literary clothing and habits of her friend; she writes poetry to inhabit the world that Sexton did, in an attempt to retrieve something of what she has lost.

In the second stanza, Kumin imagines an attempt to ‘rewind’ time, past “the last day of your life”, to a time when her old friend was alive. She runs “the home movie back to a space/ We could be easy in”. Interestingly, this space is the kitchen, with “vodka and ice”. I love this image of  the two women chatting at a kitchen table, drinking vodka, their words “like living meat”. The conversation is their sustenance — and more than that — it is alive and exciting.

The final verse acknowledges the public reaction produced by Sexton’s act of suicide: “you have excited crowds/ with your example”. Kumin’s response to this phenomenon is fairly dismissive, though it seems to show some contempt, too. She describes these crowds as swelling “like wine bags, straining at your seams”. This image gives me the impression that Kumin is resentful of there being a form of ‘grief’ from a public who did not know the ‘real’ Anne Sexton, but that she is also nonetheless a little fearful of their changing Sexton in some way (“straining at your seams”).

Maxine Kumin tells us that she will be “years gathering up our words” — piecing together the real memories of her friendship. Perhaps it is difficult to remember the true voice of her friend, Anne, when the voice of Sexton’s poetry is so present, powerful and enduring. At the end of the poem, she puts on the “dumb blue blazer of your death”. This image is one that I find incredibly moving, firstly because there is anger here. By calling Sexton’s death “dumb”, Kumin is expressing her anger at an act that seems so incredibly futile — her suicide was “dumb” because it said nothing — all it did was silence her. And perhaps Kumin puts on the blazer because she does not want the poetry, but rather the voice of her friend. The blazer is empty — “dumb” — it cannot speak with Anne’s voice. Although Sexton lives on through her poetry, the person is gone, and it is that person who Kumin grieves in this poem.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Echo’ by Christina Rossetti

Come to me in the silence of the night;
Come in the speaking silence of a dream;
Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream;
Come back in tears,
O memory, hope, love of finished years.

O dream how sweet, too sweet, too bitter sweet,
Whose wakening should have been in Paradise,
Where souls brimfull of love abide and meet;
Where thirsting longing eyes
Watch the slow door
That opening, letting in, lets out no more.

Yet come to me in dreams, that I may live
My very life again though cold in death:
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath:
Speak low, lean low
As long ago, my love, how long ago.

This is such a hauntingly melancholy poem by Christina Rossetti. It is a beautiful expression of grief and longing to find a loved one again after they have died. My personal feeling is that this is about a dead child (perhaps it’s something about the “soft, rounded cheeks”), though it could be read with any departed loved-one in mind.

I love the repetition of “Come” in the first stanza (“Come to me”, “Come in”, “Come with”, “Come back”), and the rhyme scheme; all of this makes the poem so enchanting, almost like a self-sung lullaby. My favourite phrase in the whole poem, is “eyes as bright/ as sunlight on a stream”. It’s such a gorgeous image, and the sibilance really makes the words sparkle…

Notice that the speaker begs her departed love to “Come back in tears”. I think that she uses these words because she yearns for her child (or whoever it is!) to come back by any means, so long and she comes back. If the only way to keep her connection to her dead child is to be constantly grieving, or “in tears”, then so be it.

I love the description of Paradise, in the second stanza. Rossetti wrote a lot of religious poetry, and I think that an element of her faith almost always shines through all her poems. I just think that the image of the “slow door/ That opening, letting in, lets out no more” is incredibly stunning. What a wonderful image of Heaven. It is the dream of a place where nobody has to depart — nobody has to die.

In the final verse the poet repeats her “Come to me” and “come back”; she is happy that her loved one is in Paradise, but she still longs to be with them, and she cannot help calling for them. She begs them to return, “that I may live/ My very life again, though cold in death.” I think this is a very significant phrase because it shows us how much this person means to the poet — they are everything: “my very life”! She cannot live herself with this consuming grief. I love the way the poem ends on a nostalgic note: “As long ago, my love, so long ago”. The repetition in this final line is really effective, I think, because it delivers the sense that, though this death happened such a long time ago, the speaker continues to be troubled and consumed by it, and by the absence of the loved one.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Remembrance’ by Emily Bronte

Cold in the earth — and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?

Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern leaves cover
Thy noble heart forever, ever more?

Cold in the earth — and fifteen wild Decembers,
From those brown hills, have melted into spring;
Faithful, indeed, is the spirit that remembers
After such years of change and suffering!

Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee,
While the world’s tide is bearing me along;
Other desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!

No later light has lightened up my heaven,
No second morn has ever shone for me;
All my life’s bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life’s bliss is in the grave with thee.

But, when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.

Then did I check the tears of useless passion —
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.

And, even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in memory’s rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?

Here is another of Emily Bronte’s poems. I love this one, and it reminds me a lot of Wuthering Heights, because of the idea of endless, eternal love that defeats even death. Emily was very preoccupied with this subject, and it is no wonder, because her life was so full of death from her earliest years. The oldest Bronte sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died while they were still children, from consumption. Emily Bronte had to live with that awful memory until she was also taken by the disease… Something I always find so inspiring in Emily Bronte is the way in which she held on to the idea of love, even though she was painfully aware of her own — and her family’s — mortality.

This poem understands how grief can be a “rapturous pain” — something addictive and necessary to the griever. Emily calls it a “divinest anguish”, and acknowledges that very human phenomenon whereby we become attached to our grief, because it is the only chord that sill connects us to our loved-one who has died. As always, Bronte displays an incredibly intimate understanding and knowledge of the deepest undercurrents of human nature and psychology. I love this one!

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh