Poems

The following poems are more like fragments of poems. They're not fully formed. They are the product mostly of automatic writing. of moments of pain that are transformed into language. Their fragmentation is part of their power because grief is unspeakable, it cannot be communicated except through incoherence, broken sentences, and the incomplete thought. My poems are like debris, salvaged ruins, reminders of what is absent and lost.

I'm not interested in being seen as a good poet. Above all, I am writing for my life, writing against silence, against death, writing so that my voice will be heard.

***

Tell me
this will end
No, you cannot
say it
because
it never ends.

***

"Live," they say
but there is
no life
without you

***

I am
in the darkness
My thoughts of you
are the light

***

I am dying
because
you are dead

***

Move on?
But how?
To where?
No!
Move towards
go in
with a light
and pen
probe the wound
(Mina Loy wrote)
and show
what you grieve

***

Grief is
Grendel
come to
eat you alive
to destroy
your home


Gustav Klimt - Old Man on Death Bed (1899)


“In the past, important people were often shown surrounded by a lot of people on their deathbed –those who were less grand died alone,” says Codognato. He points to the 19th-Century tradition of painting the deceased just before burial. “This ‘final portrait’ – death mask, painting or drawing – was intended to remain within the close circle of family or friends yet, in the case of celebrities, could be circulated extensively and publicly.” It remained in fashion with the advent of photography – “it was the last possible way to remember what they looked like,” says Codognato, offering Man Ray´s 1922 photo portrait of Marcel Proust as an example. Yet “today, when we document every moment of our lives in photography, it’s unlikely that we would photograph one of our relatives on their deathbed – we prefer to remember them alive and in much happier situations.”
BBC - The Bed in Art History: Between the Sheets

Meghan O'Rourke Reviews Elizabeth Alexander's Grief Memoir

At The New York Times, Meghan O'Rourke reviews Elizabeth Alexander's grief memoir The Light of the World. O'Rourke meditates not only on Alexander's book but also on the social importance of grief memoirs in a secular culture.

Loss is the flip side of love. The two are stitched together by time, which takes what it gives — meaning, of course, that when a loved one dies loss is part of us forever. In her new book, “The Light of the World,” Alexander — a professor of poetry at Yale, who is probably best known for reading her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration — has written a meditative and elegiac account of meeting and losing her husband and great love. In fragmentary, sometimes repetitive, interlocking essays, “The Light of the World” touches on politics, race and the transformative nature of art, but mainly it is what’s become known as a “grief memoir.” Its points of overlap with similar books lead the reader to a conclusion: Without secular rituals to guide us, such memoirs have become our primers in the logic and ethics of mourning. They are what we turn to when we are not sure where else to turn.
***
Writing a memoir about loss — elegizing the dead — can be a powerful act of ritualistic mourning in its own right. Not surprisingly, Alexander begins in despair: On Easter, two days after his funeral, she tells us: “I call out, to no one. Will I remember everything? What am I meant to keep?” Over time, she figures this out: One keeps what one can. Alexander’s ultimate answer to death is spiritual and ethical, if not religious — letting go of a loved one requires us to find very real reasons to continue. Alexander, long unable to write or read, begins to do both once again. She watches her sons grow taller than Ficre ever was. She hears the things he would have told them. In the end, she is able to leave behind their home in New Haven for New York City, a new stage of her life. When she wakes there, she finds that “the room is flooded with pale yellow light.” It’s a small thing, to borrow Raymond Carver’s formulation, but a good one.
Read the full article 

Further Reading
The New Yorker - "Mourning a Husband" by Elizabeth Alexander

Salon -  “Sorrow everywhere with nowhere to go”: Elizabeth Alexander on losing her husband and writing through grief

Elizabeth Bishop - North Haven

in memoriam: Robert Lowell


I can make out the rigging of a schooner
a mile off; I can count
the new cones on the spruce. It is so still
the pale bay wears a milky skin, the sky
no clouds, except for one long, carded horse’s-tail.

The islands haven’t shifted since last summer,
even if I like to pretend they have
—drifting, in a dreamy sort of way,
a little north, a little south or sidewise,
and that they’re free within the blue frontiers of bay.

This month, our favorite one is full of flowers:
Buttercups, Red Clover, Purple Vetch,
Hawkweed still burning, Daisies pied, Eyebright,
the Fragrant Bedstraw’s incandescent stars,
and more, returned, to paint the meadows with delight.

The Goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the White-throated Sparrow’s five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.

Years ago, you told me it was here
(in 1932?) you first “discovered girls
and learned to sail, and learned to kiss.
You had “such fun,” you said, that classic summer.
(“Fun”—it always seemed to leave you at a loss …)

You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue … And now—you’ve left
for good. You can’t derange, or re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)
The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.


from Poems by Elizabeth Bishop

Further reading:
The Paris Review - “repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise”: Poets Mourning Poets 
The Guardian - A tale of two poets, Thom Gunn and Elizabeth Bishop



Fragments

I cannot bear a reality absent of my father.

I see no meaning in suffering.

This delicate world.

Music is a connection to him. He loved music. But I still can't listen to the artists he listened to.

My greatest shame: I've let the pain define me.

My greatest shame: I am not strong.

I've fallen behind.

Every memory is tied to him.

He was here and I live in the shadow of his death.

None of it can be changed. It can't be made right.

Writing is the only salvation, the only weapon against death.

Now, he's just a picture in a locket.

People with my father's first name. I still can't say his name aloud.

Sometimes, the only way I can live is to not be in my life.

You can't recover what's lost and you can't recover from it.

Grief has shown me the limits of language.

The burden of survival.

A sorrow has settled in me.

I must go into the grief without having any expectation of getting out.

Clifton Gachagua on Kenya, National Grief, and Poetry

At The Poetry Foundation's blog, Clifton Gachagua meditates on recent terrorist attacks in Kenya, discusses the grief experienced by many people in the country, and questions if poetry can convey that grief.
What might a poem about grief and the immediate shock that precedes it look like? I’d like to imagine a long meditation, something about a collective hurt and shared pain, empathy and a call to a renewal to faith. But I find myself more drawn, in the wake of what is happening in Kenya, and in particular to the 148 lives lost in the Garissa attack, to a poem that should be short, a brief poem, almost to the point of not existing at all. Perhaps my initial reaction should not be to rush into poetry. In September 2013 I was supposed to be sitting next to Kofi Awoonor on a panel about the distinctions between East and West African poetry. At the same time, or moments before, a number of gunmen had taken the Westgate mall hostage. Awoonor was among the people in the mall at the time. By the end of the panel we learnt that he had died. This was the first time I was old enough to experience the shock that follows a terror attack. I remember later at Awoonor’s vigil I held a candle in my hands and I’d never seen how dark and quiet the sky above Nairobi can get. I mean I experienced something heavy in and around it but could not name it, did not know how to think about it. 
*** 
What might a poem about grief look like? Does the shape of it on the page matter? Might it compare still, unmoving blood on a lecture hall to a flame tree blooming out of season? What might it do for those who have lost kin? I find that anything I read and write has no answers, and I am not interested in asking the same question. In fact the question itself loses shape and I am no longer sure what I am asking. Maybe time and silence will become answer. Maybe a poem with no time and space in it will become answer.
Read the full essay 

Alfredo Jaar - Shadows (2014)




Shadows is the second project in a trilogy of works exploring the power and politics of an iconic single image and follows The Sound of Silence, 2006. In Shadows, Jaar employs a photograph by Dutch photojournalist Koen Wessing taken in Nicaragua at the height of the 1978 insurrection. The photograph, which Jaar has described as perhaps the "strongest expression of grief" he has ever seen, was taken in EstelĂ­, Nicaragua during the final days of oppression by the Somoza regime. The image depicts the moment shortly after two women are told of their father’s death.
The structure of Shadows was inspired by Chili, September 1973, a photo-based book created by Wessing about that historic month in Chile. In this book, Wessing tells the story of the military coup in a sequence of images and without a single word. Wessing was one of the few international photographers to document the coup in Chile and the aftermath; in 1978 he went to Nicaragua and photographed the insurrection of the Sandinistas against Somoza. Viewers are guided through Shadows by the light of small sequential images that unravel the narrative. After walking through a dark corridor, the viewer is led to a central space in which an extraordinarily intense light emanates from a silhouetted image. This light illuminates and stuns the viewer, who becomes a participant in the action. Jaar’s choice to use the frame of a silhouette as a source of light intensifies the symbolic representation of grief and loss. As in many of Jaar’s works that explore the politics of images, Shadows engages the viewer to think of these two lives embodying many innocents who die in conflict or are oppressed.
Galerie Lelong Press Release
Click here to learn more about the Shadows exhibition
Read Jeremy Polacek's review of the show at Hyperallergic: "The Limits of Shedding Light on Grief"


A Terrible Fear of Loss

My mother went out this morning to get breakfast. I stayed in bed. Shortly after she left, I heard an ambulance siren wailing in the distance and thought, "What if that's her? What if she never comes home again?" I was so terrified in that moment. Time collapsed. I was groggy and plunged back into sleep to escape the terrible fear. Of course, she came home. There was nothing to worry about, but this is how I think. My father never came home, and nothing can stop death from happening again. Every time my mother leaves the house, I wonder if she will return. I fear what is to come. Fear is all I know.

Smile For The Camera

Last night, my mother commented on a framed photograph of the two us she'd put on the side table in the living room. I have blond highlights in my hair, we're both wearing white shirts, it's the early 2000s. We smile for the camera. My father is alive; he is taking the picture. She said I don't smile like that anymore. I said what seemed obvious, that the photo was taken before everything fell apart and we lost so much, but pointed out that I smile and laugh with her all the time. It's true, though--my smile is different just like my life is different. The life we had in that photograph, the happiness we shared, is gone now, lost forever no matter how much I ache to recapture it. I can't smile like I did in my early teens. I have this smile and it will change in the years to come just as I am changing. What I didn't tell my mother is that she's changed, too. I remember her as carefree and outgoing. Tragedy has altered her. What I also didn't say is that I miss who she was. I miss who I was. I miss who we were before the catastrophe of my father's death.