Monday, 28 March 2011

On Grief

In a recent blog post, I wrote about grief and quoted from Christopher Reid’s collection of poems, A Scattering. A number of people contacted me to tell me how moved they were by the poetry. A Scattering comprises four poetic sequences that chart the illness and death of Reid’s wife, Lucinda Gane, and his resulting grief.

Poetry is especially suited to the blankness, aching emptiness of bereavement. “I didn’t know what to say,” “What can you say?” are common expressions of impotency in the face of someone’s grief. The language of everyday discourse is not supple or honest enough to articulate a profound sense of loss. However, the best poetry combines both an expressive elasticity and fierce lucidity that can drive language into those hurting places that would, otherwise, remain shut to us. Poetry translates those emotional states that appear to have effaced language into something that is recognisably human.

The smallest associations with his deceased wife – a bottle of perfume, the garden, favourite songs – allow the poet to exercise that creative voice with which to sound his anguish. The internal howl of pain finds a metre and rhyme, a disciplining principle that makes some tentative engagement with loss a possibility.

The fact that a person once loved is no longer physically present sets in motion a nuclear series of transformations and adjustments. Life has changed not ended for Reid. Faithless, life for his wife, he believes, has ended. Walking past the hospital to which he has donated her body, he consoles himself with the thought that she is “doing practical work...educating young doctors/or helping researchers outwit the disease that outwitted her.”

Yet, for all Reid’s practical atheism, one senses in this poetry a yearning to break free from the gravitational pull of scientific fact. This collection begins with the word “Blessed” and ends with the word “blessing”. Deeply embed in his verse is a kind of secular benediction. A blessing on all those who have died and on all those who grieve. Here is some acceptance that the language of clinical pathology will never suffice, that the human instinct is to find a religious vernacular. This is poetry that brings his wife back to life. While the innumerable air kisses/we exchanged in passing/remain suspended to this day,/each one an efficacious blessing.

Flowers in Wrong Weather

Snowdrops, crocuses and hellebore,
which last year must have done their shy, brave thing
unobserved by me, are out again this year.

I was in the garden bagging
tree-trash the gales had flung down the week before.
No gardener, even I could tell the job needed doing.

Now it was a too-mild February morning.
The flowers looked misplaced, without some ice in the air
or bullying wind to give them their full meaning.

Or was it just that there was nobody to share
the annual miracle with? Crocuses piercing
the soil with a palpable pang: the dear

droop of snowdrops; hellebore
stoically averted: all missing the welcome and blessing
of the one who had planted them there.

A Scattering, Christopher Reid, Areté Books, 2009

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