I detest the word ‘closure’ when it is applied to bereavement – it’s meaningless. It is usually used when a milestone has been reached along the journey from the loss; a sense that something significant has been achieved that was left undone before. It’s a step, not an end.
I was thinking about it particularly at a family ceremony earlier this year. Almost forty years ago, my youngest brother and his wife had a stillborn child. There had never been the money for the kind of memorial they wanted/needed, until then. We met, all of us, in the pouring rain to bury our parents’ ashes in the baby’s grave and to witness the completion of the lovingly-chosen headstone and the ‘dressing’ of the grave. We needed words. I read Kathleen Raine’s beautiful poem ‘Spell of Sleep’.
It begins ,
Let him be safe in sleep
As leaves folded together
As young birds under wings
As the unopened flower.
Let him be healed in sleep
In the quiet waters of night
In the mirroring pool of dreams
Where memory returns in peace,
Where the troubled spirit grows wise
And the heart is comforted.
Afterwards, as we dried off in the warmth of a local pub, my brother said, ‘I feel different now.’ Not closure, just a step along the way and helped, I think and hope, by Kathleen Raine’s beautiful words.
Yesterday, as it will be by the time this post goes up, the poem will have been read again at the funeral of a dear friend’s mother. I have read other poems at funerals of loved ones – words crafted with such skill and care and power to bring comfort and inspiration. Needful poetry.
Every significant event in life needs and calls forth words to acknowledge, to celebrate. Here’s an extract from Edwin Muir’s perfect poem for a marriage: The Confirmation,
What shall I call you? A fountain in a waste,
A well of water in a country dry,
Or anything that’s honest and good, an eye
That makes the whole world bright...
And then there’s this from Kahlil Gibran’s Getting Married ,
Love one another, but make not a bond of love.
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Then there’s birth. It’s harder to find celebratory poems about our beginnings that don’t wander off into the territory of nappies and disturbed nights – all very real, but not purely joyful. Nothing of the miraculousness of the event. Here’s a snippet from Vona Groarke’s ‘Tonight of Yesterday’,
‘You are all about tomorrow. The moon has your name memorised.’
The most powerful poem about birth – perhaps just one of the most powerful poems ever – is Louis MacNeice’s ‘Prayer before Birth’. It isn’t joyful, it’s a fearful plea for the safety of the being that’s about to come into the world with all its hazards, but it invokes tenderness, the need for protection and nurturing that a new parent will recognise and identify with. Here are two short extracts:
I am not yet born; O hear me.
Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the club-footed ghoul come near me.
I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light in the back of my mind to guide me.
I feel I should apologise for becoming repetitive in these posts lately. I’m immersed in poetry as I try to keep up with the necessary reading and writing in the ’52 poems’ challenge. It doesn’t leave much headspace for anything else! I’m not sorry about the poems I’m reading and quoting here, you understand, I hope readers are finding the treasure in them that I do – my apology is for being stuck in this particular groove month after month. It may change...but then there’s love, seasons, festivals, weather, the sky... Is there a Poetrynerds Anonymous, anyone?
Spell of Sleep is in Kathleen Raine Collected Poems, Hamish Hamilton 1956
The Confirmation by Edwin Muir is in 101 Poems that could save your life, edited by Daisy Goodwin, HarperCollins 1999
Tonight of Yesterday by Voan Groarke is in Staying Alive, edited by Neil Astley, Bloodaxe Books 2002
Getting Married is in The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, Studio Editions 1995