“We can only understand what we can name,” writes Edward Hirsh in How to Read a Poem. He relates his grief over the death of a friend, grief that found consolation—and eventually was healed—by poetry. Death is incomprehensible, and therefore for Hirsh, the language of bereavement is expressed in selected poems.
I am just returning from the funeral of my friend Anna, a creative writer, poet, playwright, and a concert pianist. Can my sorrow over her loss be expressed and assuaged by poetry? At the memorial service this afternoon, Bill, Anna’s collaborator these past few years on numerous film, theater and music/dance installations read three poems by poets that Anna had loved.
They had nothing to do with the moment; they failed to strain the limits of my emotions as I faced Anna’s untimely demise and sought camaraderie in the shared anguish over the loss. The poems left me cold. I needed more. I needed more from Bill, an amazing creative artist himself. I wished that he expressed his own sense of loss of the unique partnership the two of them had shared. Yes, when not reading poetry he uttered the right words—his own—but the emotions were missing. There was no lamentation, no language of grief.
Hirsh’s statement came to mind. Can we name death? Can we name the depth of the cavity that opens within us when facing death of a close person? Only when Anna’s husband read a poem she had written upon the passing of her own father, it finally happened. Suddenly death, as incomprehensible as it was in relations to this vivacious, creative person that Anna had been, suddenly reached inside me and allowed me to grieve for her.
Except that she couldn’t be the one writing the words of mourning over herself, could she?
I still could not understand death even as I was able to name it.