Saturday, October 18, 2014

Memorials

I've been thinking a lot about my dad lately. I'm not sure why. Actually, I do know why: it's because our friends from down the street just had their sweet little three-month-old baby pass away, so I suppose all of us in the neighborhood have been thinking about death and resurrection more than usual. (As if I need any more encouragement to be pensive and thoughtful in the Fall!) It's been five and a half years now since Dad died. But grief is such a strange, incomprehensible thing, isn't it? With my dad, I've always felt like I should restrain my sadness for his sake, because he was so ready to be free of his body, moving on. With baby Tommy, I feel restrained because he's not mine to grieve.

Leslie Norris has it right, of course:
If I were young I could
     Make eager grief of this grave
And let the warm sorrow come
     And cover me like a wave,
The cathartic tears ease out
That soothe the constricted heart. 
It would be over and done –
     A romantic memory made
Out of this drift of rain
     And the passive part I played
But spontaneous youth is gone;
The moved heart is a stone… 
So I'll not denounce this death
     Nor embitter the ordinary air
With blown words that my breath
     Is now too small to wear.
Sufficient that he is gone;
The great man dies alone…
And yet I've also been thinking about memorials; about remembering and making real those things, and people, who are sliding ever more to the past. Wondering how to do it. How much to do it. I've always had such a horror of being overly sentimental, or of coming across as shallow or trite in the things that matter to me so deeply. But this article has made me think a lot about the power of simplicity in grief. Speaking of the little roadside memorials you sometimes see at the site of traffic accidents, it says:
…They testify to a deep human need for memorials. It is a new form of folk art, and it is extremely conventionalized in its expression. For one thing, its repertoire of forms and materials is very narrow: crosses, flowers, handwritten signs, and heartbreakingly, in the case of a child, stuffed animals. There is very little else, and no striving for originality. Their creators look for widely-understood symbols, and they yearn for resolution and closure…In a way, these anonymous roadside sculptors understand what many contemporary artists do not: that monuments, because they are public art forms, must be legible. And this requires a great degree of convention…Not long ago it was fashionable to sneer at such things…But true momumentality has everything to do with simplicity…
And I think it's true. You learn it in poetry: how the simple details say so much more than the sweeping pronouncements. True, they have to be honestly put forth, not manipulative (unlike stuff like this, which is almost a whole photo-genre in itself), but transparent allegory serves such a useful purpose: as that article says, it "uses interlocking symbols to comment on the things we care about"– and those symbols don't have to be less meaningful for being common: The fallen leaf. The soaring bird. The rain.

So I guess I'm allowing myself, these days, to think about those simple things, and let them form part of Dad's "memorial" in my head, whether or not they are powerful enough or all-encompassing enough to truly, adequately, "memorialize" him. I'm trying to let myself explore what space he left here, whether or not it was "too soon" for him to leave it. Thinking about things I have almost forgotten, things I wish he could be here for, things I wish I knew about him. Why did he love that e.e. cummings poem he had printed and posted above his desk? When and why did he start the book of photographs he took of Timpanogos from his office window, spanning years and years, in every light, in every season? I wish when he had asked me what I meant in my poems, I had tried talking about it instead of insisting that it couldn't be quantified. I wish I could hear what he thought of Sebby making speakers and Malachi playing astronaut. I wish I could see him eskimo-kiss with little Goldie. I wish I could ask him to tell me more about his parents, or about his job. It is strange to think how little I really know about what he thought and who he was.

And for little Tommy, too, I'm allowing myself some sentimentality, for all I didn't earn it by truly knowing or loving him while he was here. I'm watching the light on the mountains, the abbreviated flare and fade of the gold sunsets, and letting them remind me of hardship, and separation, and the hollow spaces that sometimes take years to soften and fill in.

I'll end with Leslie Norris, again; this from his poem "Autumn Elegy":
September. The small summer hangs its suns
On the chestnuts, and the world bends slowly
Out of the year. On tiles of the low barns
The lingering swallows rest in this timely 
Warmth, collecting it. Standing in the garden,
I too feel its generosity; but would not leave.
Time, time to lock the heart. Nothing is sudden
In Autumn, yet the long, ceremonial passion of 
The year's death comes quickly enough
As form veins shut on the sluggish blood
And the numberless protestations of the leaf
Are mapped on the air… 
                               Yet, if I stare
Unmoved at the flaunting, silent 
Agony in the country before a resonant
Wind anneals it, I am not diminished, it is not
That I do not see well, do not exult,
But that I remember again what 
Young men of my own time died
In the Spring of their living and could not turn
To this…
                             Now as the trees burn 
In the beginning glory of Autumn
I sing for all green deaths as I remember
In their broken Mays, and turn
The years back for them, every red September.

2 comments:

  1. Love this & love you. Thanks for making me pause and think.

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  2. This was lovely and definitely caused me to stop and feel and ponder. Your comment about feeling restrained in grieving for baby Tommy touched me. I've felt that -- loss and sorrow that I somehow felt it wasn't my place to feel. And the poetry I feel I need to go back and re-read and re-read to understand even a portion of everything I can sense is there to know and feel.

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