In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

Poems in Memoriam in Time for Lent


I am uploading another collection of poems here. I am also adding it to the collections listed down the right hand side of this blog’s home page.

“Another” collection, but not a new one. Some of its poems were written several years ago, although every year, I check them over and might revise them. They form a sort of portrait gallery of people close to me but no longer alive.

A few years ago, I was in Mallorca with my partner and it was in the Autumn. And we came on a gathering of the local community in the large  graveyard there, celebrating the Christian ceremony of All Souls.

I found it extremely beautiful. The service was being held outside, since that’s what you can do in that climate. Absolutely everyone seemed to be present – babies, children, parents, grand-parents. The priest was youngish and seemed to reach out to everyone, delivering the liturgy lovingly and livingly.

And, afterwards, the families wandered round the graves and said hello to dead family members there, now just faded pictures and names and flowers. And it was lovely and somehow plain healthy, accepting and peaceful with it, often quite light-hearted, past and present just getting on together, in good and rightful accord.

If life is to be lived, it seems that death has to be lived as well. And some people seem to know better how to do that, than others. Some eras too, perhaps.

A few years beforehand, not in the Autumn, in the early Spring, starting in February, three people once very close to me died within weeks of each other. The reason was not some extraordinary infection as we have now, but pure coincidence, a coincidence that’s not uncommon once a certain stage and age is reached.

Obviously, I wrote my way through those losses and experiences, since it seems to be instinctive for me that I should do so, as well as necessary, and perhaps it helps.

Since then, it has become a sort of ritual for me to go back to those people at this time of year and spend time with them, in my mind, using those poems written then and adding a few more. The season makes me feel restless and all these memories come back and, in a way, the ritual I turn to acts for me as a kind of expiation, and brings a quietening.

So I go over the poems again and then deliver a private reading of them in some place I eventually find, not at home. My partner has helped and it’s been important to me to have her there as active and supportive  “witness” to the reading (rather than as audience), though I know it has not always been easy for her. But I have needed someone I love to be there with me, to listen. I could not recite these words just into thin air.

But at the same time, this cannot be just a “poetry reading” as such. It’s a kind of ceremony, an address to the dead and to my feelings for the dead.

And over the years, the list has grown longer and the material and tone has changed and is now less to do with getting over a trauma, or a catching up emotionally with events, than with acknowledging, tracing, honouring, coming to terms with, the people concerned.

And somehow, in this season of early Spring, or Lent, it has become my own version, or conducting, of the Autumn ritual associated with All Souls, only I don’t seem very good at it, the donning of the conductor’s role, the tension between being simply and spontaneously myself in the here and now, and something a bit more formal required of me, in my addressing of these shades from the blood-lines of the past, the hugeness of the subject of loss and death.

And my version lacks the community aspect, the commonality. The church, the faiths, seems so much better at all this, even though many of the implicit/explicit belief systems they include cannot hold meaning for me.

The subject matter is essentially one of bereavement, and how best to accommodate loss and the past, people and environments no longer here, yet still playing a vital and formative part in one’s present life.

But other things crop up in my collection as well, which perhaps I ought to mention. There are physical images of death or of near-death still among the poems, which might be startling (and probably remain there at least partly because they still startle me, burned on my memory in the moment of seeing them).

But they echo too the Greek Orthodox funeral rituals, which I respect and have grown used to (my late wife Sophia was Greek). At the Orthodox funeral, the coffin remains open. The priest who officiated at Sophia’s funeral even tried to stop the undertakers from putting make-up on her face (but was too late). And his motive for trying was based on the same principle – that a proper acknowledgement of what has happened and a proper goodbye to the dead person, include a real encounter with the physical aspect of death and what death takes away, without make-up on. So I still include the images in these poems not just as an after-effect of the shock I encountered, but as an acceptance of the plain fact.

And one reason I am thinking that there might be something in these poems that goes beyond my own processing of what has happened, outside of church liturgy, is because of the references. These are modern images, still perhaps a bit taboo and perhaps needing more acknowledgement than we still give them. Extreme old age for a large proportion of the population is still quite a strange country and how do we learn to live in it ? Alzheimer’s affects so many families in these generations, cancer the same…

And how widely known is it that my sister Kim’s experience of life as she got older is not uncommon among people with Down’s Syndrome ? Until it happened, I certainly didn’t.

And here’s another point which concludes with something similar to the above, but from a different place. I’ve been struck recently by a rather remarkable long poem by a contemporary poet called Alice Oswald. It is an extremely free translation of the Iliad, with all the narrative cut out. So no story. Just a list of names of the young warriors who died in the long battle for Troy ; a list of ritualistic extended images of ancient Greek life, used by Homer and his contemporaries, each image repeated twice ; and a list of descriptions of each warrior’s death, closely linked to descriptions of each of their lives back home, before this conflict. So that the overall picture left behind does include some fierce and vivid images of death, but also a whole array, a gallery, of vivid pictures of life in that part of the world at that time. So Oswald’s poem is only slightly about the battle for Troy ; much more, it is about Homer’s world and way of living.

So, in a way, it might also be said that this series I’ve uploaded here is as much about modern life (and death) in general, as it is about some deaths in particular.

I have read the poems in various places over recent years, always at this time of year – within and outside a lovely small church near Malmesbury, among the gravestones there ; within a small empty de-consecrated church in a Cotwolds village ; in a car parked high in the Purbeck hills, as the rain poured down. In years to come, however many those might be, I think I would like to read the poems in the place where I expect to be laid to rest, after my own death.

Of course I have named particular people, mostly my relatives. And I have reflected carefully, and with others, on whether it is appropriate to name and bid fare well here to these particular individuals, in their respective situations, in a public context which extends beyond the bounds of their immediate community. Each death is different, after all, and each loss is unique.

But so, at the same time, death creates a community to which all of us belong. Grieving, acknowledging the fact, acknowledging the individual, is a part we all must play and no one is excluded from the congregation.

Finally, this extraordinary spring of 2020, I cannot but be aware that the issue of death has come close to all of us this year. The questions of how to live death, how to live the aftermath of loss, are harder to avoid than usual and all of us are facing them at the same time. They have forced open all our doors.