Short review of Beloved on the Earth: 150 poems of grief & gratitude
March 28, 2012
As a rabbi and as a poet, I commend to all of you the collection Beloved on the earth: 150 poems of grief and gratitude, edited by Jim Perlman, Deborah Cooper, Mara Hart and Pamela Mittlefehldt and published by Holy Cow! Press. As the editors write in their preface:
We turn to poems for solace, wisdom, comfort, joy. We wrap ourselves in words -- words of mourning and grief, words of mystery, words of gratitude and remembrance. As unique as each life is, so is each death. And yet, in our isolated grief and mourning, we turn to the comfort, the embrace of the words of others.
Some of the poems in this book were known to me before I picked up this anthology -- Jane Kenyon's Let Evening Come (which I just last week resolved to bring to the next shiva minyan I lead), Kay Ryan's Things Shouldn't Be So Hard. And many were unknown to me. All of them move me.
Sheila Golburgh Johnson's concrete poem "Yahrzeit" takes the shape of a flickering memorial candle flame. Maxine Kumin's How it is offers up the experience of wearing the blue jacket of an old friend, now gone. Jane Ellen Glasser's "Sharing Grief" opens the experience of two people comparing grief over the phone, "the forms it takes / in the foreign countries / inside us." With its images of unfilled jars and absence, Natasha Trethewy's After Your Death opens the gaping chasm of emptiness.
Here are two of my favorite poems from the collection, or at least, two of the poems which speak most to me today. This one, which opens the collection:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
I love the way the Carver poem feels like a shred of conversation, something we enter in medias res, already unfolding. And what more do any of us yearn for than to be beloved?
And this one, with its echoes of Dylan Thomas:
You have grown wings of pain
and flap around the bed like a wounded gull
calling for water, calling for tea, for grapes
whose skin you cannot penetrate.
Remember when you taught me
how to swim? Let go, you said,
the lake will hold you up.
I long to say, Father let go
and death will hold you up.
Outside the fall goes on without us.
How easily the leaves give in,
I hear them on the last breath of wind,
passing this disappearing place.
Pastan gives voice here to the complicated longing of watching a parent die. And the poem's final images read both as autumnal description and as a wish for what's coming. If only we could let ourselves go as easily as do the falling leaves -- or, in the Talmud's preferred imagery, as gently as a hair lifted out of a bowl of milk. The "last breath of wind" makes me think of the neshama, the soul-breath which enlivens us; the disappearing place is this life which we enter and then leave.
As a clergyperson and pastoral caregiver, and also as a poet and reader of poetry, I am so glad to have this book at hand. My thanks are due to the editors of this collection, for assembling something so poignant and beautiful and profound.