I write now in the cumbersome
you lived in the present-future
a tense of your own invention....
Can't you now somehow contrive
to be both dead and alive?
Two little extracts from Christopher Reid's 2009 Costa Prize-winning collection of poetry A Scattering, which I have been reading on and off for months, but much more intently in recent weeks. I wonder if it's possible to write a post about death and dying and somehow not put everyone off in the first sentence because I have declared the subject? I always feel I need to offer a warning because I know for many of you it can be too much to read about for whatever reason, so please do wander away now and give this one a miss if you want to ...we'll all understand, but if you can hang on in please do because here is a book with real value.
In connection with the day job I subscribe to the really excellent journal Bereavement Care edited by Colin Murray Parkes. This is published in association with Cruse, the UK-based voluntary organisation who offer support and counselling to those who have been bereaved. The journal keeps me in touch with current research and contains a wealth of really useful articles, so as I idly leafed through the latest edition I was delighted to find a piece entitled Bereavement in the Arts, a conversation between William Radice and Christopher Reid, author of A Scattering and a name better known to me as the editor of The Collected Letters of Ted Hughes.
A Scattering, like another old favourite of mine Elegies by Douglas Dunn, is written in memory of the poet's wife, in this case Christopher Reid's wife Lucinda who died of cancer in 2005, and records in the most understated, straightforward and unsentimental yet deeply moving way, the mourning of a beloved partner.
There is so much to find here I'm not even going to start dissecting the book because I think that would be inappropriate. The power of this collection lies in the way that every reader may take a different direction on opening the first page and be able to identify with different aspects of the poetry, interpreting in the light of their own experience and finding their own level with it. But I am interested in some of Christopher Reid's reveals about it all in this article... about his choice to try and keep the language 'tightly buttoned' and keeping the lines short, even terse rather than to a strict metre and how, on reflection, he can now see that the gaps between writing took him into the different stages of grieving. The poems becoming a product of those gaps, those periods of 'silence and confused contemplation.' The moment within which he describe Lucinda's last moments of life is profoundly moving in that 'tightly buttoned' method which serves so well here...what more is there to say beyond
Sparse breaths, then none -
and it was done.
What follows is a deeply moving description of what Christopher Reid does in those immediate moments afterwards.
Asked if he had any awareness that the book may help others, which it clearly has and I can see exactly how, Christopher Reid denies any thought for his potential audience, rather a clear focus as a spectator watching and sharing the unique life of his own wife, always a stern judge of his poetry and intolerant of 'poor or dishonest work.' And keeping in mind the 'communication of feeling' which, when I had turned the final page for the second or maybe even the third time, I knew that Christopher Reid had achieved in a very unique yet also universal way, and often with real simplicity.
Alongside this I have been following Badaude's remarkable drawings from Sobell House, the hospice in Oxford coupled with her artist in residence spot at the Wellcome Collection in London
Joanna Walsh’s Ars Moriendi opens at Wellcome Collection. A large-scale drawing in the Collection lobby, it will deal with the process of dying in a medicalised culture, and what our hopes for a ‘good death’ are.
In a culture where death is taboo and art about dying is scarce or considered morbid, there are few continuing visual traditions surrounding ‘a good death’. I investigated art from the past in the Wellcome Collection’s library and was impressed with the delicacy and beauty of the object created in response to such a dark and difficult subject....
It is a dark and difficult subject, often a taboo subject for discussion, let alone writing blog posts about but Badaude and Christopher Reid have addressed something important and in tandem with both my reading and looking recently.
The title poem in A Scattering concerns elephants ...
I expect you've seen the footage: elephants
finding the bones of one of their own kind
dropped by the wayside, picked clean by scavengers
and the sun, then untidily left there,
decide to do something about it.
The poem written after recalling some film footage seen of elephants scattering the bones of their dead
But what exactly? They can't of course
reassemble the old elephant magnificence;
they can't even make a tidier heap...
and slowly as the poem progresses Christopher Reid's use of the metaphor gains deeper significance in relation to the much wider spectrum of mourning, but as I read I couldn't help but think of Badaude's project and how often do we now call that unspoken taboo topic the elephant in the room?
Except in Christopher Reid's case this is a metaphor of a different ilk as he recounts in the article I have been reading
'What appealed to me...as the mixture of clumsiness and grace in the elephant's behaviour. My grief was clumsy, but I hoped that grace would come of it.'
I think there is little doubt about that...
...elephants at their abstracted lamentations -
may their spirit guide me as I place
my own sad thoughts in new, hopeful arrangements.
A Scattering is a truly inspiring and very beautiful collection of poetry and one I would recommend unreservedly to anyone, but especially those either currently in that often directionless mire of loss and grief or to others who may have been there and waded out the other side.