Friday, February 1, 2008

Some Notes on Grief

As regular readers of this blog know, I tend not to publish highly personal information here. Yes, you'll come across the odd ultrasound picture of my unborn child or synopsis of a weekend's shenanigans, but I don't like to write here about my emotions. In part this is a reflection of my basic disposition. I'm fundamentally a pretty phlegmatic fella and if there's an imbalance in my psychic makeup, it is more towards analytical intellect than feeling. As such, I tend to be suspicious of people who speak too readily--from my perspective--about their traumas and tribulations, particularly in public and such articulations, by and large, bore me. As a reader and writer and critic of poems, I'm leery of the cheaply sentimental and the self-glorifyingly sensationalistic. When someone tells me that they feel grief or pain about something, my first impulse is to interrogate the authenticity of the claim. I expressed this, obliquely, in "A Kindled Dearth," the first poem in my chapbook Ludicrous Parole, tho the speaker is more an extreme case than a rounded portrait of yours truly:

I, the cemetery of sentiment,
Kindled dearth in a starved hearth,

Blend wormwood with sediment,
Unmoved by reports of blood

Spilled in buckets and mud. I leak
And lack, need constant refilling,

Vampyric, undead, and unstruck.
My heart, the colour of peonies,

Traffics straw blood, beats more
At blunt words than keen grief.

Metaphors, red semaphores, code
Flashes of a quickening pulse. Beware

False prophets full of rich milk—
True poets spit stones and bleed air.

Some hyperbole there, to be sure, perhaps the opposite of sentimentality, and probably a failure as a poem because of it. The great error of the so-called avant-garde--of whom this fellow could be seen as an avatar--is the erroneous belief that by eliminating emotion from poetry, you eliminate sentimentality as well. The unsubtlety of their readings of "mainstream poetry" is the identification of any common human experience as a case of the poet pandering to audience expectations; of any appeal to emotion as a cheap, manipulative trick.

Most often it is, due not necessarily to the disingenuousness of the poet, as to either a basic lack of ability, or an error in artistic judgment. So much writing about personal grief suffers, I think, because the writer does not get the distance from the subject required. Because grief is pretty much a human universal, anomalous cases of psychopathy aside, and because people tend to write about things that are of great importance to them, a whole lot of bad poetry gets written from honest feelings and good intentions. As Wilde said, "all bad art is sincere." It makes it very easy for critics, like me in lazy moments, to rail against certain literary sub-genres, such as the "cancer poem" or the "pet death" poem. Such criticism fails to identify the real problem. In literature, that problem is almost never subject matter; it's how the subject is tackled. There are many more ways to fuck it up than there are to get it right. And when such emotionally significant themes are aesthetically botched, they tend to err, unlike yours truly, in the direction of mawkishness rather than sangfroid. Which makes readers like me especially tetchy, since sentimentality in poetry always comes off feeling fake and it is precisely these crucially important things in people's lives that deserve memorable, authentic utterance. So, in exasperation, we scathingly consign to the dustbin the type of poem, instead of the failed attempt at the type.

To me, one of the most moving poems in the history of the language is Ben Jonson's "On My First Sonne":

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sinne was too much hope of thee, adored boy,
Seven yeeres tho'wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I loose all father, now. For why
Will man lament the state he should envie?
To have so soone 'scap'd worlds, and fleshes rage,
And, if no other miserie, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say here doth lye
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetrie.
For whose sake, hence-forth, all his vowes be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

Part of what makes this poem for me so moving is the understatement of it, the control. Similarly, I love the restraint of Elizabeth Bishop's famous villanelle "One Art" (here me read it here); it's "the art of losing" that's so essential for anyone who tries to translate a private pang into public speech.

Jonson and Bishop were moved to write these poems by the loss of an important person in their lives. I've been fortunate thus far, in that no one really close to me has died. My parents are still alive, my siblings (in spite of my brother's best attempts to dispatch himself by mishandling a chainsaw), I've never lost a lover. Both my grandfathers have died during my lifetime, but I was close to neither. Likewise, two of my father's brother's have died, but neither was a major part of my life, so their passing hit me more as a ripple than a wave. I'm always suspicious of people's wailing at the news of strangers' deaths. It could be that they're just endowed--or cursed--with a great deal more empathy than I am--or is it just that they're more self-absorbed and so put themselves more readily in another's grief-seat?

I'm writing this today--and have not been writing here the last few days--because I have been uncharacteristically beset by grief. Last night, just shy of 8 pm, Rachel and I authorized a veterinarian to administer a fatal injection to our much-loved cat, Mortimer, after exploratory surgery revealed an inoperable carcinoma in his bladder. Mortimer was almost 14 and had been in Rachel's life since she was 19 and in mine as long as I've known Rachel, over 7 years now. He's moved with Rachel to Montreal from Vancouver and with us to Halifax, then back to Vancouver. He was a constant presence in our changing lives and a boon companion. He was the finest cat I've known, and I've known and shared quarters with many. He was unstintingly affectionate and damn near unflappable. He was easily, as I told him often to his own nonplusment, my favourite quadruped (which ranked him far above most bipeds I know). I am someone rarely moved to tears, but since the call came confirming Morty's illness--which only became manifest a couple of weeks ago--I've had tears in my eyes several times.

I'm shaken from my usual phlegm when I hear someone belittle a person's emotional attachment to a pet. This is usually the product of the same kind of misapprehension the avant-gardist perpetrates in dismissing any affect in art. The sneerer assumes that because a pet is just a dumb animal, then no authentic connection is possible, only a sentimental one. This is completely false. When I was in my early teens, my dog Blondie, a stray brought home by my other dog Mutt, who'd borne two litters of pups in my home, was struck and killed by my school bus. I was home malingering that day and so was spared witnessing this firsthand, but I was so fucked up about it, I actually suffered psychosomatic vision problems. Being a boy on the verge of manhood and one of a basically phlegmatic disposition, I did not, or would not, weep at the death of my wonderful dog. My eyesight didn't clear until I did. A couple of years later, when I was fifteen, Mutt, who was a few months older than me, died of old age (four-legged animals, unlike humans, are still allowed to die of old age). We were going to have him put down before winter anyway, so I was more prepared for his death, but I still found my mundane obligations very difficult to fulfill. I wrote about this in my poem "He Finds An Acceptable Way to Grieve," which was published in The New Quarterly a couple of years ago:

The day my dog Mutt lay down and died
of old age by the stream bank, I was obliged
to work a shift at the ice-cream store
at Cavendish beach. Since I had no more
than a dead dog for excuse, I went to work
on time (stupid ethics wouldn’t let me shirk
my duty to co-workers and employer just to mourn
a favourite pet. Such things are to be borne
with grace, or so I thought)—but I couldn’t face
the endless pace of sunburnt tourists placing
impatient orders for pralines, vanilla, hot fudge,
peanuts; I found a place I wouldn’t have to budge
from, but still could earn my keep.
                                                     In the corner
of the store, a waffle iron with three burners
on which we cooked our cones, a job no one wanted
for long (that spot was hot as a sauna,
and no matter how nimble your fingers, bound
to inflict the odd burn—we all had wounds
from that hellish contraption) but I stayed there all shift,
with my back to the steady drift
of customers, facing the blank wall
of gleaming white tiles, breathing the cloying pall
of batter, rolling cone after cone after cone
in the stainless steel mold, blessedly alone.
In the midst of all the chaos and clatter
the cones were all that mattered
to me: lay them out in neat rows
on their holders, make verse of the prose
reality of it, stack them in piles six high,
put them in the cupboard to cool off and dry,
then start again—I made at least a thousand cones,
while my mother covered Mutt with a cairn of red stones.

I first drafted this poem maybe ten years after the fact. I don't know if I'll write a poem about Mortimer and the grief his absence is causing me. But I know both he and the feelings are worth it.

Postscript, added April 20, 2008: Reading the letters of Dylan Thomas today, I re-encountered a passage quoted by Paul Ferris in his bio of Thomas. Writing to Trevor Hughes about the death, imminent or actual, of his aunt, Ann Jones, an 18-year-old Thomas says:

But the foul thing is I feel utterly unmoved, apart, as I said, from the pleasant death-reek at my negroid nostrils. I haven't, really, the faintest interest in her or her womb. She is dying. She is dead. She is alive. It is all the same thing. I shall miss her bi-annual postal orders. That's all. And yet I like--liked--her. She loves--loved--me. Am I, he said, with the diarist's unctuous, egotistic preoccupation with his own blasted psychological reactions to his own trivial affairs, callous & nasty? Should I weep? Should I pity the old thing? For a moment, I feel I should. There must be something lacking in me. I don't feel worried, or hardly ever, about other people. It's self, self, all the time. I'm rarely interested in other people's emotions, except those of my pasteboard characters. I prefer (this is one of the thousand contradictory devils speaking) style to life, my own reactions to emotions rather than the emotions themselves. Is this, he pondered, a lack of soul?

This jogged my memory, reminding me that this passage, which struck a deep chord in me when I first read it, was in fact the inspiration for "A Kindled Dearth"--you can even hear a sonic anagram of "Dylan" in "Kindled"--the poem I quoted at the beginning of this post. I identify somewhat less with it now than I did when I first read it (I was much closer in age to the man who wrote it), and I wonder what an older Thomas might have made of it, had he ever allowed himself to grow up.


rob taylor said...

sorry to hear it - it's always rough to lost a pet, especially one you've aged with like that -

does this mean you might soften your stance on all the dead pet poems in Atwood's latest?

oh, and thanks for the link to the Bishop poem, I really enjoyed it

Zachariah Wells said...

Not for a second; my point is that such poems aren't bad because they're about dead pets. They're just self-indulgently bad.

I like Bishop more and more each year. Nothing self-indulgent in her work.

Mark Sampson said...

Hey Zach,

So sorry to hear about your loss my friend. Ironically, earlier today I pulled down at random J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace and re-read the final scene, which deals very beautifully with the euthanizing of beloved animals. If you haven’t read this book, I recommend it: beyond the topic of post-Apartheid violence in South Africa, it’s also a wonderful treatise on animal rights – a preoccupation of Coetzee’s later works.

I find the difficulty in tackling grief through art is not so much the writing as it is the rewriting, the temptation to quit and call a piece finished before you hit that sweet spot of authenticity. I wonder how many works – both poetry and prose – that succeed in expressing the raw emotions of grief, started out in earlier drafts as weak and mawkish. I think there’s a misconception among some writers that their first swipe at grief is necessarily their most honest. But it’s the true craftsmen who can keep digging through buttery layers of sentimentality until he or she touches something harder, more real – like the stones you mention in “A Kindled Dearth”.