This is the third collection of poems inspired by grief that I have read in the past three years. Tennyson’s Memoriam had a richness I loved but could barely grasp. Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad is nostalgic, sad, and lyrical.
Michael Faber’s poems Undying: A Love Story are splendidly direct and blunt, filled with blood, marrow, cancer, sex, and drugs. For me the directness worked, and I liked the humour too. The poems begin when his wife is near to dead after six years of treatment for myeloma and chart her death and his grief. The narrative is not neat: the poems jump backwards and forwards as grief does.
As happens so often with reading, I was also reading this morning, the morning on which I finished Faber’s poems, Proust reflecting on the importance of suffering, unhappiness, and darkness for the creation of art. “It is only while we are suffering that we see certain things which at other times are hidden from us…real books should be the offspring not of daylight and casual talk but of darkness and silence.” The deaths of his grandmother and Albertine were more important to his ability to write a “real book” than were their lives and their love. (Albertine, of course, never loved him but simply pretended to, another gift to creation.)
I took just a few quotes from Faber’s poems, and they are below; but I also was much amused by the poem “Don’t hesitate to ask,” and it’s in the picture. We all find ourselves saying to someone who is seriously sick or dying: “If there is anything we can do, anything at all, don’t hesitate to ask.” The poem gives us something to ask for.
Although there is no God, let us not leave off praying
for words in solemn order may yet prove to be a charm.
We do not fear to die, to ebb away.
What we fear is endless days
with a body that is not our own;
of our cunning abuser, our disease,
who fears no medicine
and hears no pleas.
In your world, Art is never virtual
It’s physical, a thing, it can be held
You are compelled to make it real.
Loss by loss, and need by need,
You slipped into my care,
And, act by act, I learned that I was there
For you, and we were in this till the end.
I look up as I walk, and in the sky
I see the first of all the moons
We will not share.