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