“And early though the laurel grows / It withers quicker than the rose.”

Readers might notice that on or around April 11 every year I post this poem or one like it, in honor of someone I loved very much.


To an Athlete Dying YoungHousman

A. E. Housman

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.


 

(Rest in peace, EVC.)

Advertisements

“And early though the laurel grows / It withers quicker than the rose.”

Readers might notice that on or around April 11 every year I post a poem like this one, in honor of someone I loved very much.


To an Athlete Dying YoungHousman

A. E. Housman

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.


 

(Rest in peace, EVC.)

On Omnivorous Reading: A Tribute

About two years ago, I sent my 80-year-old grandmother a copy of The Martian, by Andy Weir, having forgotten that the first line of the novel is “I’m pretty much fucked.” That’s how I felt when I remembered it a day later, when the book was already on a truck headed for her house in the suburbs of Buffalo.

Turns out I shouldn’t have worried; as you might suspect, given that I assumed she’d want to read The Martian in the first place, Grammie told me later that she liked the novel “very much,” her highest form of praise for books and movies, even saying, with a laugh, that she appreciated the profanity because “who wouldn’t curse in that kind of situation?” She said The Martian would be one of those books she re-read once a year or so as a treat. I’m not sure she ever did get a chance to re-read it; I forgot to ask about it in our conversations over the last few months.

"I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” This is my grandmother's copy of Jane Eyre.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” This is my grandmother’s copy of Jane Eyre.

Grammie died last week, and I miss her already. I loved her very much, and was always pleased that we shared a favorite color and a favorite novel, Jane Eyre. She had the same patience with me that Helen Burns had for Jane; like Helen, she quietly accepted life’s troubles, her stoicism always a source of curiosity to me (I have the temperament, I should perhaps regret to say, of ten-year-old Jane).

Like Helen, whom Jane meets when she’s reading Johnson’s Rasselas, Grammie was a reader. I’ve written before about my parents’ love of reading and the effort they put into our reading lives, but I’ve never talked much about Grammie, and just how important she was to me, not only in the familiar grandmotherly ways—stroganoff, hamburgers in gravy, perfect chocolate cakes chilled in the fridge, quality time with her skinny hairbrush and Johnson’s no-more-tangles, birthday cards with the most even and lovely penmanship I’ve ever seen, love and support through the very best and worst of times—but also in shaping the way I read. By her example, my grandmother taught me that reading offers not only the pursuit of knowledge or the cultivation of empathy, but also pleasure and enjoyment.

When I was a child I watched my Grammie read from a distance. As Jane Eyre recalls of Helen, “I think her occupation touched a chord of sympathy somewhere; for I too liked reading, though of a frivolous and childish kind; I could not digest or comprehend the serious or substantial.” Grammie  read everything, it seemed—novels about submarines, true tales of disaster and survival (believe me, there was nary a chick flick to be found on her movie shelf), classics like Kristin Lavransdatter.

Grammie's living room bookshelf.

Grammie’s living room bookshelf.

On her living room shelves in Buffalo were handsome 1960s volumes of major authors (Melville, Hugo, Petrarch, Dante, Dickens, Montaigne), while upstairs paperbacks left behind by my uncles (I read all  Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels one summer) jostled with nonfiction history from college courses and late-60s/early-70s bestsellers (thanks to which I can report with confidence that Love Story is truly terrible and The Godfather is way raunchier than the movie). Whenever I happened into Grammie’s room there’d be a book on the nightstand (which now sits in my room) or on the nubbly white bedspread, usually with a sticker around its spine and a dust jacket; Grammie was a devoted patron of her public library. Hers was a house of books; there was always something to read, no matter what mood you were in.

Just as important as her example of omnivorous reading was her refusal to dictate what anyone else read. Grammie (like my other grandmother) was a teacher and then a homemaker, raising a family of readers (and teachers) with tastes as diverse as her own. She lived alone for more than twenty-five years, her solitude interrupted by periods when she helped to care for two separate sets of grandchildren while their mothers studied for graduate degrees. When she lived with us from when I was 7 until I was 10, every Saturday morning brought chores first, then a trip to Blockbuster (Goonies and Meatballs were perennial favorites) and the library.

The fountain at the former SEL library.

The fountain at the former SEL library.

The library in this little Cleveland suburb was like something out of a fairytale—a big Tudor mansion spangled with light (alas, it has been sold and is no longer a library). It featured slate floors, marble fireplaces, indoor plants, a burbling fountain, oddly-shaped rooms, twisty corridors, and nooks for a little reader to hide in. When we arrived at the library those Saturday mornings, Grammie took my younger sister to pick out books (hers and my sister’s), and left my brother and me to find our own. Every week for a long time I took out seven Nancy Drew books, the old editions with golden-yellow spines grayed by many grubby hands and black-edged pages that I now collect. Never once did she tell me I’d taken out too many books, never told me a little girl couldn’t read that many in a week. So I assumed I could, and every Saturday I came back for seven more until I’d read them all, and then I moved on to other authors, from Lois Lowry to Anne Frank to Judy Blume to Madeleine L’Engle. Grammie never once told me that I shouldn’t read a book because it was too mature for me; she let me and my siblings read as we chose, allowing us to develop our own tastes (a trait my parents also shared).

IMG_6163Like Jane Eyre observing Helen Burns in Lowood’s schoolyard and then peppering her with questions about her book, I loved to call up Grammie and chat with her about what she was reading. Usually it was something I hadn’t heard of, since she read quite a bit of nonfiction. One of the last times we talked about books, though, before she got sick enough that we spoke mostly about the weather or what shenanigans her great-grandson was up to, she told me she was re-reading The Country of the Pointed Firs, an oft-neglected nineteenth-century classic by Sarah Orne Jewett that I didn’t encounter until a graduate school seminar nearly ten years ago. I went to my shelf to pull out my copy, flipping through a few dog-eared pages, and read her the passage that had stayed with me, and which I’ve been coming back to over and over again this week:

There was the world, and here was she with eternity well begun. In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong.

 

“Yes,” she said. “I like that very much.”

Oliver-022

“And early though the laurel grows / It withers quicker than the rose.”

To an Athlete Dying Young

A. E. Housman

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

 

 

(Rest in peace, EVC.)

Recommended Reading: Making Nice, by Matt Sumell

photo (14)When I finished Making Nice*, Matt Sumell’s debut novel-in-stories, I couldn’t stop thinking of it as a bildungsroman, even though the narrator, Alby, is about thirty.

I think that’s because we can come of age not once, but at least three times: when we physically and, to some extent, emotionally “grow up” (the fodder for the archetypal bildungsroman, like Great Expectations or Jane Eyre), when we meet our own children, and when our parents die.

This last sense is speculation on my part, for which I am very grateful, but I can imagine the jarring sense of being alone in the adult world that would accompany the grief over a parent’s death.

Making Nice is about how Alby deals with his mother’s death from cancer—not very well, it turns out—but at the same time, it’s about his whole life, his family, his environment, and his choices. It’s a bruising account of that final and terrible kind of growing up.

On paper, Alby is not a sympathetic character: he drinks to violent excess, he steals pain medication not meant for him, he fights, he’s often contemptuous and belligerent toward women. He’s prone to egregious lapses in impulse control.

However, in Mr. Sumell’s capable hands, he is very much a whole person: studded with flaws more visible than most people’s, but a man of blistering emotions who demonstrates a profound capacity for empathy. The book’s structure—linked stories—is ideally suited to conveying the complexities of Alby’s character. Rage and humor sit uncomfortably close to one another, and the result is great writing, even if it’s sometimes difficult to read. This is a compassionate, humane book, and I recommend it.

(The Paris Review, which published one of the stories now included in Making Nice, has a fascinating interview with Matt Sumell that explores some of the novel’s autobiographical aspects.)

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

Death of a Poet

The first time I met Eric, one warm evening in late May, I told him how much I hated the title of one of his poems. (I am a noted conversationalist.)  We were at a party unveiling the latest edition of the college lit magazine, which I’d worked on, and two or three of Eric’s poems had been selected for publication, including the one I fought vehemently against because of its horrid title. (It really was bad.)

Totally unfazed, Eric grinned, told me I was wrong, and joined the magazine’s staff in the fall so that we could bicker more frequently. He walked me home every Monday night, always laughing.

Two years later, we finally realized that we were madly in love with each other.

Three months and twenty-seven days before our wedding day — seventeen months and two days after our first kiss at Logan airport — Eric was dead.

That was six years ago today.


In the six years since Eric died (I am allergic to euphemisms, at least when it comes to death), I’ve never been able to write coherently about our few years together, his death, or the aftermath. Over the past month I’ve written pages and pages of material, but it’s too much to post here, though it was, in the greater scheme of things, an ordinary tragedy. There was no bomb, no gun, no collapsing bridge, no drunk driver. No earthquake or tsunami or tornado or wasting disease. There was no one, nothing to blame, but there is so much to tell.

I could tell you about how much Eric loved his family and his best friend, Andy, his generosity of spirit, his quick wit, his inimitable brand of hard-edged sensitivity. But then I’d have to tell you about Eric’s walk (jaunty, purposeful, often with a cup of black coffee in hand), his laugh, his eyes, his fearlessness, the long tails on his handwritten ‘y’s, his inexplicable love for soccer, Miller High Life, and rap.

I could tell you about his poetic exploits (he wrote a sonnet composed of advertising slogans, and it worked), about the funny, bawdy, homely, happy poems he dashed off two or three times a week for me, about the play he wrote without telling anyone. I could tell you how the last time we talked I said I thought some of the poems in his thesis were ours, too personal to share. But then I’d need to tell you how we laughed about brazier/brassiere, how proud I was when he was published, how modest he was when other poets praised his work.

I could tell you about screaming into my apartment’s floor after Eric’s father called to tell me he was dead (the carpet was beige and cream with little brown fibers threaded through its flat twists, like loose hairs). But then I’d have to tell you about smashing glasses in the kitchen, curling up next to my best friend and hearing my mom ask him through the phone if I was vomiting, because I was sobbing so hard — and I wouldn’t be past the first two hours.

I could tell you that it is absurd (one of Eric’s favorite words) to be twenty-three years old and shopping for a black dress when there’s a perfectly good meringue of a wedding dress at home that you won’t ever wear. It’s absurd to wonder if there are support groups for almost-widows (There weren’t.). But then I’d have to tell you the absurdity of trying to explain your fiancé’s best qualities to a minister who’s never met either of you before, the absurdity of listening to a woman who verifies your relationship with the dead man in the casket twenty feet away and says, “Just think! All those birthdays! All those Christmases! And your wedding!”

I could tell you what it’s like to think that the evidence of spring around you is worse than absurd — it’s obscene. Obscene that all those flowers and budding trees are licked with sunshine when your beloved’s body is going down, down, down into the dark earth where you can’t follow. But then I’d have to tell you about reading an autopsy report, a calm account of your lover’s body cut to pieces, learning, at the last, just how heavy a heart can be.

You see, April really is the cruelest month.

The truth is, I’ve never written before about the aftermath of Eric’s death because to remember it, for me, is to relive it.  One memory leads to another, and another, and another; what I’ve written here is only a fraction of what’s still in my mind. I can hear our wedding rings clinking on a chain around my neck, can see the anguish in his mother’s eyes, can taste the dust from the gravel road into the graveyard. I did not — do not — handle bereavement with grace or humor or equanimity or courage or any admirable quality at all, really. The desire to write these things down is mostly selfish, an attempt to share the witness of grief, to excise just a few of those memories.

That’s one half of the truth. The other half is that love is stronger than death.

What’s stronger than the awful memories of the week of Eric’s death and burial is the enormous power of the acts of love that happened in the weeks and months and years that followed. If I were to list every person who was kind to me, to Eric’s family, to my family, you’d be reading for hours. I kept every message, every letter, every note sent with flowers; impossible as it seems, I remember every person at the wake and funeral, every kind word then and after, and my gratitude is unceasing.  For every agonizing memory, there are two or three filled with images of love. Most of them are so specific that I can’t write about them here without infringing on other people’s privacy;  so suffice to say that when life felt most unlivable, somehow kindness always appeared in one of its many guises — a cornucopia of grace that I’m convinced saved my life.


There’s a particular solace that books can give, the sense that someone else has been there before you, has staked out the country, is holding out a rough-hewn cup when you’ve been so thirsty for so long that you’ve forgotten the taste of water. Mercifully, the last book I had to teach before the summer was The Razor’s Edge, and I’d never understood it better. I re-read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. My friend gave me Ann Hood’s Comfort. And there was poetry — so much poetry: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, Carol Ann Duffy, W. H. Auden, Milton, A. E. Housman.

And finally the ghost of Miss Havisham appeared and I decided that while I had no intention of falling in love ever again, I also had no intention of withering away in my apartment, or forever provoking (kind) looks of pity.

And so, about a year after Eric died, I found myself in a little Italian restaurant, sitting across from a tall near-stranger with warm brown eyes. He was shy, funny, serious, and, as I learned later, very kind and very gentle. I told him about Eric and my almost-widowhood on that first date, and he looked me in the eyes when he said he was sorry. He emailed me and asked for another date the same night. And in the last five years, he’s listened whenever I needed to talk about Eric.

It was confusing, at first, to fall in love when I still loved Eric; but finally I realized that I will never stop loving him. After all, we love relatives who’ve died, don’t we? The condition of their existence does not alter our love.


Last year, around this time, I wrote a little about what it’s like now to feel this mixture of love and sadness. For now, I can’t improve upon it, so here it is:

The end of a long story of mine is that I own the poetry collection of someone I loved very deeply and who died much too young.  In the beginning I kept our collections separate, and thought that someday I’d try to read through them as a way to work through my grief. But over time the project receded, and our collections have melded together so thoroughly that often I don’t know the provenance of a particular book.

This morning, my little son, H, and I were looking over the shelves to find a poem to work on this week, and I was drawn to Richard Wilbur’s New and Collected Poems (1989), which won the Pulitzer (Wilbur’s second). It’s a thick volume, and I found several promising poems, full of sly wit and concrete images, but nothing that shook me by the shoulders and said “This one!”

Until, that is, as my son fell asleep in my arms, I read the title of the last section: The Beautiful Changes, the title of Wilbur’s first book of poetry, published in 1947, when he was twenty-six (oh, to have the touch of genius!). My hands shook a little; I know these poems, “Cicadas” and “O.” I’ve read poems that talk to them.

And the last poem in the book, in the collection, is “The Beautiful Changes,” and it expresses, for me, what has happened since I lost this person I loved, whose fingers turned these very pages. Through the madness and the crushing weight of sorrow, the images that I cannot un-see, life and consolation reached out and found me.

I knew, without looking, that if I opened the inside back cover, I’d find three angular initials, and that they wouldn’t be mine.

But now the poem is ours.


Portrait of His Beloved120_517293792055_8906_n

John Donne knew a compass could draw
the face of a clock, but not the face
of his woman. To the young poet,
did this difference mean anything?

He knew her hands, no matter how gentle,
held him, in the end, the same way
as the clock’s hands held him.

To be away from her was to know
the hour. It was to know death
could be any unknown moment.

He loved her likeness, because
it was its moment kept in its frame.
Looking gave him time to ignore
the strange numbers never smiling.

Eric Van Cleve, 2006

 

Recommended Reading: The Obituary Writer and Comfort, by Ann Hood

Ann Hood, Comfort, photo by CR OliverAbout five years ago, when I was going through a Very Bad Time, my wonderful friend Mary gave me Ann Hood’s memoir Comfort (in which Ms. Hood very graciously penned a note for me). Comfort‘s chapters deal with the experience of grief; Ms. Hood’s five-year-old daughter died from a virulent form of strep in 2002. The book is gut-wrenching, and the first chapter is the best, truest writing on grief that I’ve ever read.

That grief clearly informs The Obituary Writer, Ms. Hood’s novel that’s out this year. The novel gives us two stories in parallel. We follow Vivien in 1919 San Francisco (and environs) as she comes to grips with the disappearance of her lover in the earthquake of 1906, and Claire in 1960 Virginia, feeling trapped in a loveless marriage and catapulted suddenly into an affair. Their lives intersect, of course, but the contrast between the two women is fascinating.  How did women shape their lives when their roles were so constricted, so defined?

Ann Hood, The Obituary Writer, photo by CR OliverI found as I read that I wanted to know more about Vivien’s relationship with her lover, and how they negotiated social situations and taboos, and I was disappointed to be left in the dark about that aspect of Vivien’s life. However, that disappointment was overmatched by my interest in Claire’s fascination with Jackie Kennedy. I’m a New Englander, but I’ve never felt the affection for the Kennedy family that the rest of Boston perpetually evinces. It wasn’t until I read this book that I came up with a possible explanation for why women loved Jackie: her life, on the outside, at least, was the best, materially speaking, a housewife in 1960 could wish for. Jackie was beautiful, cultured, spoke French, married a handsome man, had two adorable children, and was never in danger of running out of money. The reality of her situation was different, of course, but I suspect that her presence in the White House gave women who felt stifled at home something to aspire to as they engaged with the parameters of their lives. But that’s just a theory.

Have you read Comfort or The Obituary Writer? What did you think?

“I want you and you are not here. I pause”

Tomorrow, someone I love would have turned 31.Carol Ann Duffy, Selected Poems

I bought my first Carol Ann Duffy book when he was twenty-three and I was twenty-one and we were friends. He was out in California, studying poetry, and I was visiting Paris, and bought a beautiful paperback version of Ms. Duffy’s Selected Poems at Shakespeare and Co., perhaps the most storied independent bookstore ever, a feast for the imagination of literary types (I also bought Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, if you were wondering). I bought her Selected Poems because I already loved (and sill do) the sexy, glowing “Warming Her Pearls,” but I didn’t know then that the book will always fall open on another page.

“I want you and you are not here.” That’s the first, plaintive sentence of Carol Ann Duffy’s wonderful poem “Miles Away,” which is about conjuring up the presence of the absent beloved in thought and language. It’s such a perfect rendering of what I felt so keenly for so many months, and still sometimes, that I can only point toward the poem itself:

                        I have got your mouth wrong,
but still it smiles. I hold you closer, miles away,
inventing love, until the calls of nightjars
interrupt and turn what was to come, was certain,
into memory.

This one’s for you, EVC.

“Your hands hold roses always in a way that says / They are not only yours”

The end of a long story of mine is that I own the poetry collection of someone I loved very deeply and who died much too young.  In the beginning I kept our collections separate, and thought that someday I’d try to read through them as a way to work through my grief. But over time the project receded, and our collections have melded together so thoroughly that often I don’t know the provenance of a particular book.

This morning, my little son, H, and I were looking over the shelves to find a poem to work on this week, and I was drawn to Richard Wilbur’s New and Collected Poems (1989), which won the Pulitzer (Wilbur’s second). It’s a thick volume, and I found several promising poems, full of sly wit and concrete images, but nothing that shook me by the shoulders and said “This one!”

Until, that is, as my son fell asleep in my arms, I read the title of the last section: The Beautiful Changes, the title of Wilbur’s first book of poetry, published in 1947, when he was twenty-six (oh, to have the touch of genius!). My hands shook a little; I know these poems, “Cicadas” and “O.” I’ve read poems that talk to them.

And the last poem in the book, in the collection, is “The Beautiful Changes,” and it expresses, for me, what has happened since I lost this person I loved, whose fingers turned these very pages. Through the madness and the crushing weight of sorrow, the images that I cannot un-see, life and consolation reached out and found me.

I knew, without looking, that if I opened the inside back cover, I’d find three angular initials, and that they wouldn’t be mine.

But now the poem is ours.