Monday, 21 September 2009

Bibliotherapy: What to read in memoriam

Tomorrow is the anniversary of my sister’s death, and like many of us who mourn someone who has died too young, I remember her untouched by the ravages of age, her eyes still filled with courage and hope for the future. But in the aftermath of her death, when I was raging against the dying of her light, appalled at the savage randomness of life that saw her die at 33, I came across Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘An Arundel Tomb’, which was read at his own funeral.

I read the poem in the place of its setting, Chichester Cathedral, beside the Arundel Tomb itself, where the stone figures of a medieval earl and his wife lie together, his hand holding hers. The last line of the poem is the one most often quoted – ‘What will survive of us is love’ – and it struck me with as much force as if spoken by a voice beyond the grave; and has continued to resonate for me as a reminder that death does not consume love; that there are tender threads that bind the living and the dead, even amidst the silence.

But Larkin was too clear-sighted – always a realist, sometimes submerged by pessimism – to skim over the harshness of death. As in his wonderfully moving poem, ‘Cut Grass’, ‘An Arundel Tomb’ is precise in its acknowledgment of summer’s loveliness and its inevitable passing, of the joy of living and the finality of dusty death. ‘… Light/ Each summer thronged the glass. A bright/ Litter of birdcalls strewed the same/ Bone-riddled ground…’

And Larkin – a man who vacillated between women; who loved and betrayed and loved again – is also unfailingly honest about the shimmering shifts of human emotion; of its elusiveness, which can never be preserved in stone. The concluding stanza of ‘An Arundel Tomb’ is more hesitant than its last line (‘Time has transformed them into/ Untruth. The stone fidelity/ They hardly meant has come to be/ Their final blazon, and to prove/ Our almost-instinct almost true:/ What will survive of us is love.’) Yet the poem still stands, like the tomb itself, as a monument to those we love, and always will do; as sad and true as the anniversary of a death, in the turning of the year.


JoannaD said...

My thoughts are with you, Justine. I read the columns Ruth wrote before she died and they made a very deep impression on me. Thank you for a beautifully written post.

Karen, Surrey said...

How hard it is for any of us to lose someone so young. Yours sister raised the profile of her illness and is remembered for that by those who didn't know her. What an amazing thing to do, I am sure that, even though I didn't know her and don't know you you must be so proud of her. She will be remembered by those who loved her and those who knew of her and you're right death doesn't consume. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family at this time. X.

Keren David said...

Strangely enough I have just been quoting this poem in my book.
I worked with Ruth, and she was a great colleague, funny, clever, warm and enormously talented. Her cruel loss was and is shocking. My best wishes to you and all of Ruth's family.

Anonymous said...

Justine, I found this poem by accident when browsing through the Guardian about 2 days before my husband died much to young like your sister and from cancer as well. I ripped out the cutting and put it in a drawer I don't know why but something told me to keep it. I did not expect Steve to die so soon after this event and when he died it brought me comfort and when I go these words will be placed on our joint headstone. You are right the poem does show that there are links to those we love but can not longer see.
I also read the columns Ruth wrote and also the books you have written since.

My thoughts are with you.

GlassCurls said...

I love Larkin's poem, and what it says about life, death, love and the unbreakable ties that bind them. I hope tomorrow is one of joy as well as sorrow, as you think back on those times you shared before Ruth got ill.

Sarah said...

Your beautiful writing is a profound act of memoriam in itself. Sending love to you and all of your family.

Justine Picardie said...

Thanks to everyone for their kindness (like love and loss, it is what binds us). What poetry or prose do others read in memorium? I keep returning to T.S Eliot's Four Quartets.

harriet said...

I too love this poem and am glad it has been some comfort to you. Your loss must be unimaginably sad but your sister did so much good you must feel very proud, indeed.

Josephine Tale Peddler said...

Best thoughts and love to you Justine. xx

Rob Hardy said...

Thank you for your moving reflections. I confess I didn't know Larkin's poem until I visited Chichester Cathedral. It was lovely to discover at the same time the poem and the monument that inspired it.

Here's a poem I wrote last autumn, after the unexpected death of a friend.


The world going golden under a leaden sky—
the dark leading of the branches, the leaves
like panes of colored glass shattering from the trees.
Soon neighbors will draw indoors,
the light of windows banked against the cold.
We will pass less often on the street, then not at all.
The last words will fall from our mouths.
We will start to forget.
What remains will be fragile and luminous.
The world will be glazed with ice, the trees will reach up
with bare arms, like children wanting to be held.

Bee said...

Hi Justine, thank you for the kind words on your previous post. I'm enjoying the book very much, enjoying seems the wrong word to choose, comforting is a better choice. I'm finding it a comforting read.
I had a short email friendship with the novelist and poet Julia Darling who also had breast cancer and metastases. This poem by Julia is one of my favourites.
Thinking of you today..the sun is simply glorious here, it doesn't seem like the beginning of Autumn at all.
Eventually, I was placed on a bed like a boat
in an empty room with sky filled windows,
with azure blue pillows, the leopard-like quilt.

It was English tea time, with the kind of light
that electrifies the ordinary. It had just stopped raining.
Beads of water on glass glittered like secrets.

In another room they were baking, mulling wine.
I was warm with cloves, melting butter, demerara,
and wearing your pyjamas. My felt slippers

waited on the floor. Then the door opened
soundlessly, and I climbed out of bed.
It was like slipping onto the back of a horse,

and the room folded in, like a pop up story
then the house, and the Vale. Even the songs
and prayers tidied themselves into grooves

and the impossible hospital lay down its chimneys
its sluices, tired doctors, and waiting room chairs.
And I came here. It was easy to leave.

Unknown said...

Dear Justine, I read your book and your sister's while caring for my younger brother after he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Looking for other sisters and brothers on that terrible journey ... They were a comfort then, and later, when I re-read them after he had died 18 months later. Thank you for all of your writing and for sharing the comfort you've found with others' writings. Kamala

enid said...

It is the anniversary of my mom's death.I too have been at the tomb in Chichester. Thanks for sharing your love with us and making us all bound together in remembrance of those we love and lost. What a beautiful poem. Love to you.

Anonymous said...

My thoughts are wioth you today Justine.

GlassCurls said...

There are a couple of poems that I think would help me when reading in memoriam (I've been lucky enough not to be too touched by death yet, but in years to come, these are what I think I would turn to)

John Clare

The Instinct of Hope

Is there another world for this frail dust
To warm with life and be itself again?
Something about me daily speaks there must,
And why should instinct nourish hopes in vain?
'Tis nature's prophesy that such will be,
And everything seems struggling to explain
The close sealed volume of its mystery.
Time wandering onward keeps its usual pace
As seeming anxious of eternity,
To meet that calm and find a resting place.
E'en the small violet feels a future power
And waits each year renewing blooms to bring,
And surely man is no inferior flower
To die unworthy of a second spring?

Robert Frosts

On looking up by chance at the constellations.

You'll wait a long, long time for anything much
To happen in heaven beyond the floats of cloud
And the Northern Lights that run like tingling nerves.
The sun and moon get crossed, but they never touch,
Nor strike out fire from each other nor crash out loud.
The planets seem to interfere in their curves
But nothing ever happens, no harm is done.
We may as well go patiently on with our life,
And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun
For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.
It is true the longest drought will end in rain,
The longest peace in China will end in strife.
Still it wouldn't reward the watcher to stay awake
In hopes of seeing the calm of heaven break
On his particular time and personal sight.
That calm seems certainly safe to last to-night.

Christina Rossetti

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

There are others, of course, but I don't want to take up too much space.

Justine Picardie said...

Thank you, everyone. Much to read and reflect on...

kairu said...

Beautiful post and poem, Justine.

There is a haunting poem by Giacomo Leopardi about the woman he loved, who died young, called "Dream" ("Il Sogno"). It is too long to repeat here, but the translation I have is by Eamon Grennan, from Selected Poems. I think there are other poems he wrote in memory of this lost love, but this is my favorite.

colleen said...

I find myself less comforted by words than fabric. I often find myself thinking of and revisiting - your book "My Mother's Wedding Dress" which encapsulated beautifully the relationship between fabric, our clothes and the imprint they make on memory. When a friend died recently, I wanted very much to ask for some old shirts to make something from, but didn't quite have the nerve.

Knitting Out Loud said...

Wonderful poems everyone has posted. There are Etruscan sarcophagi in the Boston Museum similar to the Chichester Cathedral one, only the couples are facing each other and embracing. I'm reading My Mother's Wedding Dress and loving it. My thoughts are with you.

enid said...

There is a beautiful poem called Muted Gold by Susan Reich. It starts
My father died as my plane touched down
He taught me journeys don't happen in staight lines
I loved him without ever needing words
Is memory a chain of alibis
He taught me journeys don't happen in straight lines
His father sailed Odessa to Boston Harbour
Is memory a chain of alibis
The story I choose a net of my own desires.
Do try to read it. It is a wonderful poem of memories of those who have left us

Anonymous said...

It is almost the anniversary of my own sister's death. At the time, I was reading Christina Rossetti. "For there is no friend like a sister,In calm or stormy weather". I wish you peace, Justine.

dovegreyreader said...

Justine, I'm late getting here, but always thinking of you x
This poem sticks in my mind because it was the one we had to do as our unseen poem for A Level English. I fell in love with it in the examination hall and almost forgot I was supposed to be writing about it.
I've just finished If the Spirit Moves You (very good!) and I'm wondering have you ever read The Dead Man's Message by Florence Marryat? She was the daughter of Captain M of Children of the New Forest Fame and this book has just been republished by a new indie publisher Victoria's Secrets. I'm thinking you'd find it very interesting if you don't know of it already.

Kath H said...

Another late one, but I read Before I Say Goodbye when it was first published and wept buckets at the unfairness of it all.....and then 3 years ago I lost my beloved 27 year old brother. The glue that bound my family together. The one who made you feel good to be alive. A stupid road accident....And it hurts more than I can ever say. The poem I read at his wonderful, loud funeral was ee cummings "i carry your heart" because I do...David lives on in me & all those who loved him, as Ruth does in her family and friends.

I carry your heart
I carry it in mine

with much love

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry for your sister, but you have to think she is now in a better place, without suffering the problems humanity is experimenting day by day... She is now resting, and you must be happy for that.