I have just negotiated the date of my recital in 2015 for Saturday afternoon, May 30! As always, it seems quite far away—over eight months—but I know from experience that I will need every one of those days to prepare the five works I hope to play. My plan now is to start with the Beata Golec’s Toccata followed by Bach’s Toccata in E minor and Jennifer Higdon’s Secret and Glass Gardens. Then, after intermission, the variations: Beethoven’s in op. 109 and Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli.
I am itching to get back to the piano. I have been out of town for five days in the past week—first at American Players Theater for a couple of days where we saw Chekov’s The Seagull and Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma with family and friends—and now at Clarke University in Dubuque where Steve is finishing up some work.
I love being on a small college campus in the fall. It brings back such wonderful memories of my college years at Ohio Wesleyan University: the fresh start, the new friendships, and the amazing professors who first introduced me to Whitman, Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Theodore Roethke, and the great Russian writers. I did not take many piano lessons in college because my English classes drew me so forcefully. But staying in a dorm again even for a few days, and reading/writing in the college library bring back so many great pleasures.
Yesterday in the Clarke library, I sat down and read straight through Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel. Wow.
I urge you to buy the book and read it—even if you have never lost a child. If you are a parent, read it. And if not, at least read Alec Wilkinson’s New Yorker Aug. 4 review of Gabriel, excellent discussion of elegies, and interview with Hirsch called “Finding the Words: A Masterpiece of Sorrow.”
In it, Hirsch says,
I used to believe in poetry in a way that I don’t now. I used to feel that poetry would save us. When I was writing ‘Gabriel,’ even the painful things were consoling, but I’m aware when I’m outside the poem that the poem doesn’t give me my son back. Art can’t give him back to me. It comforts you some, better than almost anything else can, but you’re still left with your losses.
Yes. That’s true. What the Hirsch’s poem does do, however, is to link his loss with the many other similar losses by other poets throughout the ages: poets who have lost children to scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, smallpox.
He writes of Yamanoue no Okura, Japanese poet of the seventh century:
Yamanoue worried that his son’s soul
Would not know the right road
To take in the underworld
And so he offered to pay the fee
Of the courier from the realms below
to carry Furuhi on his back
A father broods that his son
Is wandering on the wrong road
Lost in the otherworld without a coat
In this last stanza, Hirsch makes the connection between Yamanoue’s son and his own.
According to Pema Chödrön and Alice Walker’s conversation, “Good Medicine for This World,” from the January, 1999, issue of Shambala Sun, connection is the way out of suffering. Chödrön says, “I have found that it’s less overwhelming if you start with your own experience of suffering and then generalize to all the other people who are feeling what you do. That gives you a way to work with your pain: instead of feeling like you’re increasing your suffering, you’re making it meaningful.”
Maybe. I have always admired and tried to emulate that aspect of Buddhism. But in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is much “easier” just to blame God, even if you do not believe in him. Hirsch writes, in Gabriel:
You’ve already broken my heart
I will not forgive you
Sun of emptiness
Sky of blank clouds
I will not forgive you
Until you give me back my son
My mother was a very devout Christian. The night after my sister died of polio, my mother was wild with fear that my sister would “wake up” on the “other side,” alone, calling for her, not knowing where she was. The thought tortured her until, she said, she heard “a voice” saying simply, “Marilyn is all right.” From that point on, my mother was calmed. Sad to say, my father never validated her experience, and even I, in my determined atheistic twenties, scoffed. My father told me never to speak of my sister because it “hurt” my mother. Because I obeyed him out of my own fear of my mother’s overwhelming sorrow, I have paid the price of forgetting much about my sister. As Hirsch writes,
I’m scared of rounding him up
And turning him into a story
God of Scribbles and Erasures
I hope he shines through
Like a Giacometti portrait
I keep scraping the canvas
And painting him over again
But he keeps slipping away
But though he also writes–
Poet who labored so hard at your craft
On a scarred wooden desk
It is late now
It is time
To turn off the lamp
And come down from your study–
he keeps on writing an unpunctuated narrative (as if to keep it from ending) about his difficult but beloved son. As long as his grief survives, so does his son.
I, too, keep “scraping the canvas” of my many poems about my sister in order to paint her over and over again.
Chödrön says, in a different Shambala Sun article, September 1998,
There is nothing wrong with negativity per se; the problem is that we never see it, we never honor it, we never look into its heart. We don’t taste our negativity, smell it, get to know it. Instead, we are always trying to get rid of it by punching someone in the face, by slandering someone, by punishing ourselves, or by repressing our feelings. In between repression and acting out, however, there is something wise and profound and timeless.
If we just try to get rid of negative feelings, we don’t realize that those feelings are our wisdom. The transmutation comes from the willingness to hold our seat with the feeling, to let the words go, to let the justification go. We don’t have to have resolution. We can live with a dissonant note; we don’t have to play the next key to end the tune.
I love Chödrön’s musical image about living with dissonant notes and not needing resolution. I’m not so sure about letting the words go.