Thursday 17 October 2019

What poetry can predict

My first book, a poetry collection, was published in 1991. I wrote it when you were a baby. I wrote it as I nursed you, as I rocked you, as I got to know you, as you learned to crawl and walk. There’s a poem in the book in which I describe a dream I had when you were a year old. A dream about you. In this poem:

I woke
and the dream will not leave me
my son is about to drown
and I can’t save him
his brand-new self
soft as a bear’s snout
sinks in the clear water

Here was my anxiety over losing you. Here was the powerlessness—not being able to save you from death. An anxiety so overwhelming. The worst that could happen: that you’d vanish.

When you were sixteen years old, I wrote two poems about death:

When death takes something from you
give it back
give back what you got
from the dead one
when he was alive
when he was your heart
give it back to a rose,
a continent, a winter day,
a boy regarding you
from the darkness of his hood

When death takes something from you
give it back
give back what you got
from the dead one
when you stood in the rain in the snow
in the sun and he was alive
and turned his face toward you
as if wanting to ask something
you no longer remember and he
has also forgotten and it’s
an eternity
an eternity ago now

You are the one hiding in the hood’s darkness. I thought intensely about you as I wrote those two poems. I saw you before me as I wrote them. I didn’t know why, I didn’t ask myself why, the poems came to me as something from you, something I could not understand. All I understood was that I obviously had written two poems about death, and that you in a way gave me the images—or that something associated with your being got me to write them. The sun, the rain, the snow. Your face turning questioningly toward mine.

I read the two poems out loud at your funeral. I realized that as early as when you were a year old, I received a sign in my dream that you would vanish from me. As early as when you were sixteen years old, I saw you hiding in death’s dark hood. That I had already predicted the eternity that would replace your life, the eternity I now live with, and which you are absorbed by. Just as I dreamed that you fell and hurt yourself shortly before you fell to your death from the fifth floor.

But images and signs cannot be interpreted before they’re played out in concrete events. You understand them only in retrospect. That’s why omens can only be expressed. As language, as poetry. It becomes an experience that belongs to the future, which can express, though they are not yet experienced in reality. That’s what poetry does sometimes. And it’s one of its most beautiful qualities. It’s also what makes poetry dangerous and portentous. The feeling of knowing something that you can’t understand yet or connect to anything in reality. As if poetry makes it possible to move freely in time, as if linear time is suspended while you write and a corner of the future becomes visible in a brief and mystical moment.

But poems also say something about giving back what the dead gave us when they were alive. That the dead’s being in a way still needs a place in life, and we should pass on the love they gave us. Here lies the hope. A hope that what you gave me will grow in others, if I am able to share it. And that my love is strengthened and made more beautiful because now it contains your love. This must not be destroyed by sorrow. It says in the poem, “give it back.” As if giving goes back and forth all the time. From the living to the living. From the dead to the living. And from the living to the dead. A circular movement, not linear.

Even still, these poems fill me with rage and a violent hatred for the predictions they contain. It’s an impotent rage. A rage that reminds me of what I experienced as a child. Just as children do not understand the forces they’re up against (the adults and their incomprehensible actions and refusals), the bereaved do not understand death. But there’s nothing to do about it. You can rage as much as you want, nothing will ever come of it. The adults decide and death decides. You can’t escape the loss of love from the adults, from the dead. Hard and furious and despairing, children and the bereaved must struggle on through life, and hope that the love underlying the feeling of loss is larger than the loss itself, and that this love creates love and compassion.

A heart, a rose, a winter day. A boy who drowns in the clear water.

The world’s beauty and cruelty. Love’s power.

—Translated from the Danish by Denise Newman

(Source: The Paris Review)

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