28 April 2016
When you were dying people talked about you in the past tense which I found annoying. Now that you have died people refer to you in the present tense which I also am struggling with. from Woods and Clouds Interchangeable (Wave Books, 2019)
I am beginning to write this on April 28th, 2023. I am on a train back from Boston, where I had the pleasure of reading last night with the wonderful, vulnerably-tender, wholly-engaged-with-the-world Ricky Ray at Harvard Divinity School.
I am sitting in the cafe car, which is almost always where I sit whenever I am on a train, and there is a window to my left, and outside that window are rolling past the cloudy beaches of Connecticut: Stonington, Mystic, New London — these coves and inlets dotted with little boats and the big ferry that shepherds the too-big cars across the Long Island Sound. Sometimes I look up, and, facing the direction the train is moving, see that nearly immaculate sight of the track curving away from the window, and the foreword-most cars of the train that I am on curving along with it, signaling to me that I, too, will soon be moving along that curved track — that, in some regard, I already am.
I have many memories of this long stretch of track. I have a photo of my wife that I cherish, her head — topped with a red hat — leaned against the window, while above that hat is softly painted the hazy orange-red glow of sky that can only really exist on an evening above the ocean, as if the air had breathed up the water of the sea to brush along and upon the once-solidness of what it used to be. And I have a memory of the long blue bridge, industrially and efficiently ugly, that extends high above the Pequonnock River alongside Bridgeport, where I got off many times to visit my friend and his family — nights spent around a little kitchen table eating chicken baked with spinach — and where I got off the day I heard that my friend’s mother, who I often called my second mother, was dying. That day, I sprinted from the classroom where I was teaching the moment I heard the news, boarded a train at Grand Central, and nearly ate a cigarette as I waited in Bridgeport for the cab that would take me across that yes-so-ugly bridge and to the hospital, where my friend and his father and our shared friends gathered in a waiting room for a long night of waiting for a life to end.
Maybe I am thinking of this poem because of that. Maybe, too, I am thinking of this poem because I have attended more than several funerals in the last twelve months, and have watched stoic men in suits that often seem a little too short for their arms load and unload coffins from the backs of long cars, or pull them with gentle stiffness, despite their aging knees, down aisles where people wipe the tears from the corners of their eyes. It is strange how, when people die, they exist in a part of my mind where they would have loved this or where they are smiling or where they are one with something or someone or the very earth itself. Even the way I started that sentence just now, with that phrase they exist, introduces a presentness that seems to begin at the very moment of someone’s absence.
Michael Earl Craig illustrates that odd, startling transition perfectly in today’s poem:
Now that you have died people refer to you in the present tense which I also am struggling with.
So yes, maybe I am thinking of this poem today because of the way that life is at once an accumulation of absences that also manifest themselves in the present, in ways that we often struggle with. When someone is gone, they still sometimes are. When someone has left, they still sometimes arrive. They dance and sing and smile as memories in the rooms of our mind, reminding us that they are not here, that part of their presentness is their absence. A strange thing, this humanness, isn’t it? What we lose we don’t always lose. What has gone doesn’t always stay gone. We are forever in between, caught up in the strange absurdity of sense-making. When the body is rolled down the aisle, the body is there but the being-ness of the person is not, and yet, sometimes, walking down the street, or seeing the bridge over the river, the being-ness of the person is fresh in our minds, smiling on the other side of the kitchen table of our minds, but the body is not.
So, hey. Do me a favor, would you? Remind me sometime that one great joy of this life must be — no, has to be — the holding of this both-at-once-ness, this impossibility we are gifted with, this forever-wrestling, this smile-memory that brings us to grief, and the way that, even in grief, we can break into laughter.
When I first read today’s poem, I thought immediately of a favorite poem by Louise Glück — “Telemachus’ Detachment”:
When I was a child looking at my parents' lives, you know what I thought? I thought heartbreaking. Now I think heartbreaking, but also insane. Also very funny.
I think that both Craig and Glück understand this strangeness at the heart of our existence, and the way, so often, we sometimes undermine the value of this strangeness with the vast generality of our response to it. It’s there in the onset of Craig’s poem:
When you were dying people talked about you in the past tense which I found annoying.
In the face of someone’s death, we sometimes — as Craig writes — say he was or she was or they were. We speak as if a person is already dead; we generalize in the face of what we struggle to understand. In the same way, the child in Gluck’s poem reduces life to a single word — heartbreaking — before growing into an allowance of life to be something more than just that single word: heartbreaking, insane, very funny. So much and more.
I’m struck, too, by the almost-invisible craft of today’s poem. If you look again at each stanza, you’ll see how Craig plays with the tense his speaker is using. The final line of the first stanza — I found annoying — is situated in the past tense, while the final line of the second stanza — I also am struggling with — is situated in the present tense. As the person is dying, Craig’s speaker sits in the past tense, and after the person has died, Craig’s speaker sits in the present tense. It’s an inversion that enacts the strangeness of grief. There’s a sense of never-quite-getting-it-right that Craig offers through this poem. It is at once frustrating and so deeply human. It’s as if we don’t know how to say what we don’t fully know. Perhaps this not-knowing will go on forever.
In the book today’s poem is from, Craig has a poem titled “How to Fix a Broken Butterfly Wing.” It’s a poem of specificity and absurdity; it directly has to do with its title. In it, there is a list of items needed to do exactly what the title states:
—old towel —wire hanger —toothpicks —Q-tips —new wings —tweezers —baby powder —scissors —contact adhesive —cardstock
And then, at the poem’s end, Craig writes:
Near the end comes a somber warning: DO NOT BURDEN YOUR FRIEND WITH LARGE ADDITIONS. PRACTICE BEFORE IF POSSIBLE. But Alice in order to practice you will need another butterfly.
I think of those final two lines — But Alice in order to practice / you will need another butterfly — when I think of today’s poem, when I think of the strangeness that loss introduces into our lives. Life is, in some ways, like practicing with the one life we have, like revision without publication or finalization. The practice of before is what we have lived through in our past. We our forever fixing our own wings while we fix the wings of others. No — we don’t have the other butterfly. We have one another.
Poems like today’s remind me that our societal attempt to standardize our language around death, or to sterilize or isolate death, has not helped us cope with the fact of it, and the inevitable complexity such a thing will introduce into our lives: the complexity of grief and memory and loss and coping.
In a recent feature story about the band The National (whose new album, I should say, I am listening to as I write this), Amanda Petrusich (who wrote one of my favorite New Yorker features ever, on Wendell Berry) writes the following:
Part of it is surely existential—our lives are temporary and inscrutable; death is compulsory and forever—but another part feels more quotidian and incremental, the slow accumulation of ordinary losses. Maybe there’s a person you once loved but lost touch with. A friend who moved to a new town. An apple tree that stood outside your bedroom window, leveled to make way for broadband cable. An old dog. A former colleague. We are always losing, or leaving, or being left, in ways both minor and vast.
Our lives are filled with these ordinary losses. They introduce the past tense into our present lives. As does memory. As does grief. As does time. We live, I think, in this past-present, this in-between, this forever-figuring-out. Tense is such an interesting word to consider in this regard. It refers not just to time, but, as an adjective, it refers to the tight ball of anxiety we sometimes make of our hands, our bodies, and our minds out of the fact of being alive in this world. It shares a root — the adjective tense does — with the word tender, with the word tenderness. If tenderness is the gentle act of stretching one’s frailty toward the world, of softening through this stretching act of vulnerability and empathy, then our tenseness is the deeply understandable response to the struggle of that gentleness, to the struggle of awareness, to the struggle of attention, which shares, too, in the root and origin of all these words that exist in orbit of one another. Our tenseness, our tenderness, our attention — each inextricably linked to the other in this long-running and in-between and past-present-future tense of our lives.
There is a real struggle to manage being in the present moment — being alive — as all of this unfolds and unwinds and empties out. Even love, sometimes, can be a struggle, as Mary Oliver writes in her poem “One or Two Things” (perhaps I am thinking of butterflies today, too):
For years and years I struggled just to love my life. And then the butterfly rose, weightless, in the wind. "Don't love your life too much," it said, and vanished into the world.
I have a vast and great care for the final lines of today’s poem: which / I also am struggling with. There’s a real humility I hear in the stark simplicity of the way it is phrased. It makes me think of all the times I have stood somewhere — caught in the most quotidian of moments — and felt that same struggle. I am struggling with this. That struggle, whether it is the struggle to love, or the struggle to cope, or the struggle to deal with the way we speak of loss in the midst of loss, or the struggle to keep waiting for the train that is long-delayed, or the struggle of stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to wonder for a brief instant if where you are going is where you really want to be going, or the struggle that overcomes you after you use the bathroom and realize that you only want to stay for a little longer in this small and quiet room before going back out there, wherever there is, whatever it includes and whatever it is missing — that struggle is part of our ordinary existence. To acknowledge it, simply, to say I am struggling now, is one way of coping together.
I recently had a poem published in HAD, a favorite journal of mine. You can read it here. I have another coming out with them soon.
A few weeks ago, I had the honor of having two poems published in the newest issue of Good River Review, out of Spalding University. You can read them here. I have a finished manuscript of a book of poems circling around the idea of light — all of these aforementioned poems are from it.
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Oh, I'm just weeping. So much loss. This is so lovely.
Big big sigh. Many thanks for piercingly expanding our hearts and minds, week after week...