There was a time when all I wanted was silence. Or, rather, silence enveloped me. I don’t know if I chose it or it chose me, but I didn’t want to have to speak. So much had been said already, enough that, surrounded by poems, I could just point to express what I needed someone to know.
It was, of course, the culmination of a habit of silence and observation, a lifelong training in self-effacement, self-denial, shutting up.
Into this silence Louise Glück’s work fell. I don’t know how I discovered her, but once I knew of Ararat’s existence, it was a book I had to have. I sent for it, on my student budget, a beautiful hardcover from the US. It was searing, at a time when I felt wounds open enough to need that kind of cauterizing.
Encased in grief, Glück’s relentlessly harsh voice expressed for me sorrows and fury that I didn’t dare let myself feel. It was like throwing my voice, from an interior silence, from an unknown even to myself. Glück describes my experience better than I can:
I’ll tell you
what I wanted to be—
a device that listened.
Not inert: still.
A piece of wood. A stone.
Guck’s voice is so sharp, it brings to mind cutting, and, as critic Dwight Garner points out, the fact that her father helped invent the X-acto knife is a “cosmically sublime detail:”
I am prepared now to force
clarity upon you.
After or before—I’m not sure of the chronology anymore—I memorized the book, my eldest brother died of a brain tumor. I had traveled back and forth from Toronto to Ottawa to be with him in the eleven months he lived after his diagnosis. I remember him as calm, almost indifferent to his fate, though I know that can’t have been the case. Still, our conversations were flat, mundane. He ate chocolate against doctor’s orders. We went for walks in the woods, holding his boys’ hands. He had staples in his head. We got used to that. You can get used to anything. You quickly adapt, make bargains: ok this. Here and no further. This is ok.
But time and disease are relentless in their advance. As Glück tells us, “there has never been a parent/kept alive by a child’s love.” Nor a brother by a sister’s, nor a friend by a friend’s. It’s a truth you discover every time in the experience of loss. The longing to go backwards, the nostalgia for what seems like the worst time—it was impossible to explain to my circle of friends, untouched then by death. Glück understood, and her cold, harsh voice kept me company in my solitary grief:
She wants to be back in the cemetery,
back in the sick room, the hospital. She knows
it isn’t possible. But it’s her only hope,
the wish to move backward.
When I wrote my way out of my grief, there was no trace of Glück’s influence. My experience of family, however difficult in the years of my eldest brother’s sudden absence, was of a coming together, of support and of beauty, as my other brother made, and kept, a promise to be there for my dead brother’s children, his infinite patience and hard work holding us together. Despite their theme, there was something sweet in my poems, written over a period of two months of cloistered grieving.
It wasn’t Glück who helped me out of my period of silence definitively, it was a therapist whose ministrations of Reiki and an admonition to write, to just write, just write every day brought me out of a deeper grief, out of a stopping up of guilt and self-loathing.
What has stayed with me from Glück, and what guides my writing like a distant star, is a line from “Lament.” Like most of her work, it can best be understood in the context of the whole poem, so I’ll quote it here:
Suddenly, after you die, those friends
who never agreed about anything
agree about your character.
They’re like a houseful of singers rehearsing
the same score:
you were just, you were kind, you lived a fortunate life.
No harmony. No counterpoint. Except
they’re not performers;
real tears are shed.
Luckily, you’re dead; otherwise
you’d be overcome with revulsion.
But when that’s passed,
when the guests begin filing out, wiping their eyes
because, after a day like this,
shut in with orthodoxy,
the sun’s amazingly bright,
though it’s late afternoon, September—
when the exodus begins,
that’s when you’d feel
pangs of envy.
Your friends the living embrace one another,
gossip a little on the sidewalk
as the sun sinks, and the evening breeze
ruffles the women’s shawls—
this, this, is the meaning of
“a fortunate life”: it means
to exist in the present.
A fortunate life means to exist in the present. To write from the blessings of love and family, of being alive, a body in this particular time, the small pleasures of taste, hearing and touch, to write about sex and children, with an awareness of life’s fragility and the relentless cruelty of time. It’s not an easy project: an aspiration.
Dominique Russell is an activist, teacher and writer. Her collection, Instructions for Dreamers, will be published by Swimmers Group this year.
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