“There are limits to saying, / In language, what the tree did,” writes the poet Robert Hass in “The Problem of Describing Trees.” In the poem, he circles an aspen and attempts to describe its movement. He begins in conventional lyric mode, detailing foliage glittering in the wind. Then the poet (whose verses have often spoken humanely of our kinship with the natural world) abruptly corrects himself, for falling into a familiar beauty trap. He awakens to the limits of human language, of the impossibility of really describing the tree. I think that the poet’s hesitancy is linked to his recognition that the instinct to anthropomorphize may turn the poem into more of a cipher for his human emotions, less a description of the tree itself.
Over the last eighteen months I’ve sat for long moments at my desk, trying to compose useful, consoling, thoughtful messages to friends and relatives who have lost loved ones in the pandemic. I am a poet, so I should, I suppose, be able to summon these words, conjure up something fresh and helpful, but I’ve found the task as difficult as everyone else. My thoughts keep returning to the day ten years ago when I answered an unknown number and the woman on the other end of the phone told me that my brother’s body had been discovered on a beach, in a well-known and beautiful spot. The coroner’s assistant’s voice had the kind of practiced, tired efficiency that I would later hear from funeral directors and doctors.
I was on a train to Norwich when I got that call, on my way to my morning poetry class. I had been a human rights lawyer for several years, but after my twins were born, I fell hard for poetry and enrolled for a master’s in creative writing. I’d always felt my work as a lawyer was useful. As I deepened my reading of poetry, I became convinced that it, too, had a useful purpose, and the that the function of this most human art was, in the words of Richard Wilbur, “to make the unbearable bearable, not by falsehood but by clear, precise confrontation,” that a poem “is not a message but instead . . . a kind of performance, a kind of machine of feeling that other people can use.” This was a seductive idea.
No matter how anarchic and wretched the grief may be, a poet will have gotten there first.
After that phone call, I switched trains and headed back to London. I had time enough to ask myself which words and what language I was going to use to relay the news to my mother. Was I going to use English, my acquired language, but still the language I felt most comfortable with, or ought I use the language of my mother, Punjabi, a language I was less confident in? My mother had been tending to my toddler, who was sick and couldn’t join her twin in daycare. The precise words I used in my mother’s suburban kitchen matter little (they were, in the end, a blend of both languages). A few moments after telling my mother, my daughter woke up, fractured the silence, and calmly told us she was hungry.
In recent years I’ve noticed a shift in the vocabulary we use to talk about grief. We have tried to reframe the language of dying in a more positive way. There’s been a healthy, long-overdue discussion about mental illness, and a corresponding rejection of the phrase “committing suicide,” a term steeped in criminal history that allows little space for compassion. A lawyer specializing in inquest work tells me that she refuses to use the term and instead allows herself to be led by the bereaved families, embracing the words they choose to minimize stigmatizing them further. Another friend has embraced the term “anticipatory grief;” it helps her encapsulate and untangle the complicated feelings she’s experienced as she cares for a loved one with a terminal illness. The term allowed her to share with me what she has felt over the last months. She placed her hands carefully on the table, explaining that they have been “rehearsing their own separate mourning.” We both stared down at them.
Bereaved parents invariably count among their children the one they have lost. A friend’s only baby survived just a few hours after her birth. This friend had carried a child to term, was called a parent, and then no longer was. “Everything in my body was screaming mother,” she says, despite the reality that her baby no longer had a pulse and had moved swiftly into the afterlife. “What words are there for me?” she asks. In English there is no name for someone who survives their child. In Sanskrit, one of the oldest languages, there is a word— vilomah—for a person who has experienced this loss. (The words widow and widower also derive from Sanskrit.) I find it curious that, in so many languages, one of the most terrible things that can happen to a parent is beyond language, to the extent that it cannot be named.
When my brother died, I turned to reading elegies and poems about how the living carry on.
After the poet Denise Riley’s son died, she published the long essay Time Lived, Without Its Flow. In it, she articulates a new language to describe the kind of time that we experience as a rupture, the “extraordinary feeling of atemporality” that can affect the abruptly bereaved: “this curious sense of being pulled right outside of time, as if beached in a clear light.” And while the language around death and dying may be shifting, the genre of bereavement literature retains its old, familiar patterns and indicates how heavily our culture is saturated with linearity, with a drive to closure, to the regaining of a self-possession that is so at odds with the actual experience of living with grief. Grieving invariably upsets narrative logic, yet still we hear that grief is something you get done, in tidy steps, that there is progression, like climbing a flight of stairs and reaching a half landing. Some things (for example, removing the deceased’s clothes from wardrobes) shouldn’t be attempted until the third stage, while other things (counseling) are encouraged sooner. Drinking/hard drugs are bad, while medically prescribed marijuana or anti-depressants are acceptable forms of self-care. There is the “good” mourner and the “bad” mourner. Or, in the words of Jahan Ramazani, author of Poetry of Mourning: “Psychology . . . leaves us in want of a mourning more subtle and vivid, less normative and schematic.”
Why isn’t there a word for the liminal state we are in when we’re waiting for the funeral rituals and cremations of our loved ones, when we dream so lightly, half-expecting to be woken by them tapping us on our cheek? When the imperative is to resolve the ugly, sticky business of grieving, to repair the wound, there is little space to sit with uncertainty and ambivalence. Instead, there is a tendency to pathologize and even penalize the errant mourner who resists consolation or indeed repudiates the mourning process entirely.
When death strikes, that which the mourning tongues of poets pass on to us is something altogether counter and peculiar. Elegies and their patternings inadvertently give us strategies for living with dying. When my brother died, I turned to reading elegies and poems about how the living carry on and I began to understand poetry’s deep participation in ritual. Doing so reminded me that I wasn’t the first human to experience the news of death, in my case on that morning train, as a blow to the head. I also learned that no matter how anarchic and wretched the grief may be, a poet will have gotten there first.
If you ask people how they feel after the death of a loved one, they will often talk about how lonely the space they are in feels. The eye of a grief-storm can be the loneliest place, and lately the pandemic has isolated families and communities. As mourning rituals have been curtailed, loneliness has been sharpened. The vocabulary of grief in our language fails us spectacularly, especially when we confront uncommon or unexpected deaths, like the loss of a child or young person. But as Riley points out, the problem is not only the paucity of the language, but also the way these deaths are consigned to an unknown sphere: “Even if it’s inevitable, or at any rate unsurprising, that those with dead children are regarded with concealed horror, they don’t need to be further shepherded into the inhuman remote realms of the ‘unimaginable’.”
Death is common but the expectation around how we might grieve makes us feel uncommon.
When my younger sibling died, the words “I can’t imagine” floated into many conversations with kind and well-meaning folk. I am sure I must have used the phrase, too, before then, but at the time it made me furious. Really? I remember thinking,
Can’t you? In retrospect, I believe that it meant “I will resist imagining this thing, it is too palpable, so I will not take the leap there with you.”
But the condition of living involves vulnerability. Daily we send our children out into the world, the feral, unpredictable unknown. Fragile bodies cross roads, drive on motorways, move through crowds of people where deadly viruses are passed. You can’t catch grief, but it can arouse a protection mechanism that is gently pulled when we enter houses of mourning. Or perhaps, people are reluctant to enmesh themselves with the mourner’s unique situation, as we don’t wish to superimpose our emotions on an individual’s lived experience, like Hass with his tree. Perhaps this distance is a means of respecting what is singular to that individual and their suffering. Still, instead of alienating and othering the experience of loss, I do believe this leap in our imaginations, of bringing our whole selves to the business of mourning, might help dissolve the loneliness of grief and humanize mourning,
In my search for poems, I’ve found grief in all its guises and costumes. I’ve encountered it as a purple gorilla (in a poem by Mathew Dickman) and as an aviary of small birds (in Karen McCarthy Woolf’s unflinching, lucid verses about the death of her baby son). It suffuses the surreally tinged, irreverent verses that Allen Ginsberg addressed to his deceased mother in “Kaddish.” I’ve become convinced that our chief purpose as poets is to be professional “imagineers” and to ferry feelings of universal suffering into tensile lines.
In the weeks following the death of my brother, I sat with my mother and read her lines from these poems. I offered her Roethkean small things from Deryn Rees-Jones’s “Burying the Wren,” “where an ant tips a blade of grass and the steps of its brothers are footfalls of sorrow.” When language fails, that’s generally the place where poems begin to bloom sideways, misbehaving miscreants holding a mirror up to our own suffering.
I don’t believe the bereaved require fresh insights. We want other people to show up and acknowledge that what we are feeling is not so beyond the pale, so beyond the province of the imagination that it’s indescribable. I realize now, in the early days of grief, cocooned on that sofa, that while I was excavating these lines and throwing them out to my mother like small life rafts, I was not searching for consolation or a solution to our grief; I was desperately trying to find a way to make us both feel visible inside of it.
Death is common but the expectation around how we might grieve makes us feel uncommon. The poems I read opened up possibilities and gave me confirmations that other forms of writing occluded. Poems contain an ancient logic of shared experience that we can learn from. Verses in poems may be able to carry the weight of the ineffable, but we might also have to acknowledge that in our attempt to navigate our messy complicated grief we get caught up in a skein of paradoxes. Robert Hass honors the living tree as he truthfully recognizes the difficulty of the task at hand and concludes that the aspen is “doing something
in the wind.”
Mona Arshi is a poet whose debut, Small Hands, won the Forward Prize for best first collection in 2015. Her second collection, Dear Big Gods, was published in 2019, and her debut novel, Somebody Loves You, in 2021. She is an honorary professor at the University of Liverpool.