That last Thursday in November, I had been at Miller Williams‘ sixth or eighth Survey of Western Poetry class, which I was auditing at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.I’d drive over each Thursday — it was about an hour from Eureka Springs — immerse myself in Miller’s world, do any Fayetteville errands that I might have, and drive home.
That particular Thursday, November 30, 2000, happened to be a break from all the serious poetry we had been looking at, in many forms. Miller had instead featured some lightweight poems — semi-dirty limericks, most hysterically funny. Here, for example, is one he shared with us that day, written by his old friend John Ciardi:
It took me some time to agreeTo appear in a film — about me!
And all of my ex-wives
And our various sex-lives —
But I did. And they rated it “G”!
I knew Ned would get a kick out of these, so I asked Miller if I might xerox a few. Amiably he took me down to the creative writing department’s office, where a nice woman named Stacy helped me with the photocopier. Miller disappeared briefly, then came back with a stack of more dirty limericks, maybe two dozen. We looked them over, chortling gleefully , as the sun streamed in the window — it was an unseasonably warm day, hard to believe it was November.
Oh, I just couldn’t wait to show those limericks to Ned. That would be over dinner, that night.
I knew he would laugh so hard over some of them he would double over, and his handsome face would squinch up so much that was driving back from Fayetteville, Ned was out on his typical three times a week bicycle ride out to the lake, enjoying that glorious weather.
He reached the Conoco station, turned around, and headed the twelve miles back home. On the way home he was hit by a Chevvy pick-up.
Miller Williams was one of the people I called from the “family room” outside the ER where he, Ned, left life.
LANGUAGE AS LOSS
Some emotions are too large and chaotic to be contained or understood.
Some realities of life experience are too perverse, unfair, and unbelievable to be contained or understood.
For many of us, widowhood’s emotions and reality fall into these categories.
We have spoken here, many times, about how agonizing and interminable is the process of coming to grips with the unacceptable, with that which cannot really be gripped. That someone you loved so much and so well is permanently gone, and will never, can never, come back. That no do-overs are possible. That nothing will change this.
We have spoken here, many times, about how wearyingly monotonous this is. Over and over, seemingly fruitlessly, the intolerable reality replays. You can’t go back, though you wish you could. Yet you can’t go forward, not for awhile, not when you have you no idea of what “forward” would even look like, and you are still reeling at what you have lost.
Nor can you halt the repetition of the unbearable facts. This is probably a necessary part of the psyche’s first stage in composting loss (I would like to think all that pain has some purpose, and its near-universality makes this seem feasible. Yet still it’s so horrible I cringe at the word “necessary” in this context). But whatever its purpose, if there is one, this endless repeating replay adds to grief’s great weariness.
As does the inadequacy of into words in expressing our condition.
Whether spoken aloud to others in conversation, or merely reverberating over and over in our own minds, ordinary words mean nothing when it comes to to accurately communicating our bereft and desolate state. And thus language becomes another piece of the shock, a formerly familiar, taken-for-granted element of life which, it turns out we cannot, in widowhood, rely on.
But unlike so many immutable parts of grief, language is a shape-shifter. It can move into forms other than the spoken and thought. It can move beyond the rationally structured, and grammatically correct. It can move beyond sentiment or easy, false fixes.
It become poetry. It can become song.
And when it does, it can sometimes alter and reach us, even comfort us, as little else, including words in ordinary forms, can.
Some poems by others were helpful to me at different points in grieving. I don’t necessarily mean they made me feel “better,” in the usual sense, but they did make me feel less imprisoned in a solitary echoing cell, a prison invisible to those friends who, however well-meaning and loving they were, still were in their ordinary lives.
Certain poems made me, as I have said here before, aware that what I was experiencing was not insanity, but grief. And slowly I grapsed that if this was so, then, discontinuous with reality I perceived the state I was in, that state in fact came with the territory of being human.
Poems are not one size fits all. Poems that seemed to me sentimental, or that appeared to me to deny the reality in which I found myself, even if given in an attempt to comfort or console me, filled me with fury. And yet sometimes, I know, those very same poems brought comfort to others. (There was one poem in particular that I — but that is another story, for another post).
From time to time, I am going to do a Widowhood Wednesday post in which I share with you a poem which had meaning to me, and I am going to introduce each first. (I have also mentioned in previous posts two poems I wrote. One is For Sumita; the other, How It’s Done, is part of the post Grief Will Not Be Outsmarted. But my intent here is to focus on poems by others).
This is one such post, with one such poem.
A GIFT FROM MILLER
Anyone who has not lived through it cannot imagine the surreality and quantity of details and decisions which fall to the widow, immediately after her or his partner has left the earth.
One of the few things that cut through the haze of those first days and remains fixed in memory is this: the day after I had been in that class with Miller, had photocopied those silly limericks, had called him from the ER, the day after Ned’s death, he faxed this poem over to me. Miller himself died, at 84, about 14 years later, but this act of generosity is just one reason why he remains ever-quick and alive in me.