It's summer in the city. Those who can, go off – to California, Tuscany or Paris. The rest of us are on staycations – escaping for the day to the ocean, campground, museum or movies. We're immersed in beach books – eating ice cream for lunch, and sipping gin and tonics at dinner.
Except death. No matter what season it is, the Grim Reaper, a 24/7 workaholic, never takes a holiday. No carefree swims or languid cocktail hours for Thanatos in the summertime; no party blowouts for him at New Year's.
I write in the wake of the deaths of Ray Bradbury, Maurice Sendak and Adrienne Rich – creative artists collectively mourned – whose passing saddens our public and private worlds. Death, of course, isn't content to only capture our iconic heroes. As I pen these words, our personal loved ones keep dying; and we grieve for them so intensely, perhaps, because our loss is so personal. And, the dying never stops! If only, the Grim Reaper would just spend one day at the beach!
Art can't get Thanatos to put up his feet, sip a refreshing drink and take a break from, let alone leave, the death business. But art can offer nourishment – solace – to creative artists and those who view or read poetry, painting or other forms of art. It's not that art is a conduit of sappy drivel that takes away grief and makes us (metaphorically) dance on "happy feet." But good art can connect us with grieving and remembering.
Recently, my Aunt Manci, who was born in Hungary and loved poetry, died at age 98. One of the last stories that she told me was her memory of sitting with her sister Clara as she lay dying. "She couldn't remember much," Aunt Manci said, "but she recited poetry that she'd learned as a schoolgirl."
Being a poet, when my aunt passed away, I immediately wrote a poem. It's not a great poem, but it's a first draft of a eulogy, containing within it a sinewy skeleton of my grief and her essence.
Maybe because my parents died young and I lost so many of my friends to AIDS, I'm drawn to reading poems of grief and remembrance. I've found some that are terrific. Cornelius Eady's "You Don't Miss Your Water" is a small, moving collection of poems about the death of his father.
Too often though, these eulogies are awful. They sentimentalizes the person mourned, use "inspirational," icky, Victorian imagery or infused with a cloying, self-pity for the speaker of the poem.
Thankfully, this season the poetry gods have graced us with a fabulous volume of eulogies – a poetry chapbook "Gotta Go Now" by award-winning playwright and poet Grace Cavalieri. ($8.35. Published by Casa Menendez, and available on magcloud.com with stunning cover photography by Dan Murano).
The poignant title of this slim, but moving and engaging collection comes from a conversation that Cavalieri, host of the public radio program "The Poet and the Poem," had with the late theater director Robert Alexander, who created the Living Stage at Arena Theater in Washington, D.C. "...when he was in hospice I called to give him my love," Cavalieri writes, "He spoke a few minutes and then said, 'Grace, I gotta go now.' And so he did."
"Gotta Go Now" takes us on a journey where dying, grieving and remembering intersect. As painful as the process is so often, grief and memory connect us with our dead ones, and with life as we mourn them. The job of the poet is to connect us with the inner lives of ourselves and with the characters in the poets' poems. Cavalieri is a master of this work. She writes with deceptive simplicity, seemingly telling stories that anyone could tell. Yet I dare you to try to write with her wit, poignancy or originality.
This collection of eulogies remembers among others Big Mama Thornton, the poet Hilary Tham, Cavalieri's father and her close friend Jan. As these poems so aptly make evident, sadness and humor intermingle in our grief and remembering. The poem "Big Mama Thornton" begins with the poet remembering Thornton when she sang for the last time in Washington, D.C. Thornton is drinking a quart of milk mixed with an equal amount of Seagram's gin. Thornton asks the speaker of the poem if she'd contact Seagram's for her. "...she could/advertize for them and/they'd like her for/drinking a full quart a day their gin," Cavalieri writes in lines that made me laugh and cry at the same time.
One of the best poems in "Gotta Go Now" is "The Day I Tried To Commit Suicide." I'd like to see it imprinted on the doorway of every sanctimonious establishment in the land. The poem is a fabulously ironic (but touching) take on our culture's obsession with making ourselves miserable in our quest for a long and healthy life. In "The Day I Tried to Commit Suicide," "I slept under the electric blanket/with the dial up HIGH/before I ate some fried chicken with the skin on/sitting next to someone smoking a cigarette," Cavalieri writes.
Sometimes poetry about the end of someone's life can be cliched or melodramatic. Cavalieri avoids these pitfalls. In "Moderation," Cavalieri in understated tones movingly draws us into her dying father's last moments. "One cigarette a day/is all my father smoked,/no more, no less," she writes, "...You might/say he was the very soul of/moderation."
She continues, "At eighty, he swallowed/nitroglycerine pills/not to trouble anyone...I feel that last moment/...his heart sounding like a/ whistle/...a ship just docking from Italy/or a train/at the crossing/where he held my sister's hand."
Writing poems about our dead loved ones or our own grief at their passing is a daunting task. (Metaphorically, the conversation with those we mourn never stops.) Will we capture our memories of them in a meaningful way? Cavalieri struggles with these questions in the final poem of the collection "In the Attic" (dedicated to the late poet Hilary Tham.) "I am writing here," the poem begins, "Hilary is correcting my poem."
"Find the truth," Tham commands Cavalieri as she struggles to get the poem right, "Your breath is like snow on the page."
In "Gotta Go Now," Cavalieri finds the truth in poetry and remembering.