This has been an odd, unsettling and downright disturbing poem to write.
And at this point I was going to include a half/inaccurately remembered quotation about some nineteenth century writer or philosopher who when a very small child was asked what he was thinking about, and replied, “Mortality!”
Well, I couldn’t find the quotation, though I spent far too long enjoyably clicking through clues on the Internet and meandering my way through various dictionaries of quotations. It must have been someone like John Stuart Mill or one of those absurdly gifted kids from a couple of hundred years ago who could speak Greek at the age of three and had translated a Shakespeare play into Hindi by the time he was seven. That sort of thing.
My point was going to be that thinking about death, even the death of those close to you is nothing out of the ordinary. Just another of the ‘What if?” questions that float about in our consciousness or just below the level of active thought.
I was, I think, perfectly happy when I started writing the notes for this poem, just one of those progressions in free writing that flow from fugitive thought patterns. But when you have written anything about a friend’s death, even if it is only a title ‘A friend’s death’, and even if the friend is not actually dead, you feel as though you need to explain yourself or at least give a little context.
My nails are brittle and they do tend to fray and break. When I was younger I would use my teeth as nail clippers and try and make the edge smooth. That was generally only achieved when the nail was flush with the skin of the finger, the nail having been bitten down to the quick! I also sucked my thumb, to the extent that my teeth became misaligned and a perfectly healthy incisor on the top right hand side of my jaw was extracted to give room for my front teeth to settle and align. Neither my nail biting nor thumb sucking met with the approval of my parents, who eventually resorted to smearing my fingers and thumb with proprietary noxious (though safe) liquid to ‘remind’ me by its sharp taste that I was doing something ‘wrong’. It didn’t work.
The prohibitions brought me to my absent parents; as they are ‘absent’ for most members of my specific generation now, perfectly naturally, you might say, as time goes on. But still very much absent.
It is the realization that, as one British friend said in a self-contained conversation on the phone to me in Catalonia, “Are you coming over to the UK soon? Oh, wait, there isn’t anyone here left to die for whom you will have to go to the funeral!” And when I responded that there were friends and cousins, she said, “Don’t say that. That’s our generation!” Indeed it is, hence the
wry smile from
empty generations now consumed
in the poem!
People deal with loss, and the concept of inevitable future loss, in different ways. In the poem I look towards the commemorative funeral service where one could be called upon to speak and take the
for memory that vivifies
and through recollection breathe live into the dead person through personal anecdote.
With friends there are too many instances that come nowhere near ‘anecdote’ but that are as telling as the quotation that I could not find for the start of this piece! The three lines of italicised listing might seem incongruous and odd, but each element refers to something tangible and ‘real’, an actual experience and, at the same time stands for so much more than the mere words themselves.
Friendship is everything: the good, the bad, the indifferent, the stupid, the boring and every other adjective you can think of to sum up years of knowing. But even, or possibly because, it is impossible we must make the effort, because lives (even if they are dead) matter.
I try to express this in the final stanzas by using syntax: ands as conjunctions and links, and so’s as the results and consequences of joined lives together with the necessity of saying, the use of words to make a memorial that is worth preserving.
I’ve read and re-read the last six or seven lines and, while they contain what I think I am trying to say, they still need work.
I am posting the 11th draft of this poem and I think I need to let it rest for a while before I return and work on it again.
A friend’s death.
She is not dead.
And that’s not just a metaphor
for memory that vivifies:
she is alive.
But on a bright-warm-cool autumnal day
while trying not to rip
an irritating, ragged nail,
thoughts’ dominoes began to tip and
tap, tap, tap, they fall against
remembered, bitten, finger ends
and teeth skew whiff
thumb sucked to wonkiness
until, at The Parental Eye,
And being always The, not a:
an only child.
And now, and for the rest of nows,
an orphan too. And then,
a clack around to loss.
And a wry smile from
empty generations now consumed,
to here and us, and
if I were left alive
and called upon to speak,
I would remember her.
What memories might my
Of food, and toothpaste, things not said?
Of friends, and swimming, curtains raised?
Of Music, stolen cars and care?
And then, the thought,
if these, then what dictates, “not those”?
Because, I know, good stories
need a choice,
or else it’s one-for-one
and time must parallel
to show entirety.
Which is the only truth, of course.
But, no-one ever tells it all.
Moments pass by, day by day
and what we were goes with them too,
unless we stop and take a breath
“We are alive, this time ago,
where lives are filled with ands and so’s;
so, trust the syntax as your link
that locks the here and then alike,
and let voiced statements make a space
where some shared truth may be believed.”
Thus I, remember, her.