This week, I have been spending time with Sharon Olds and the poems in her book The Father. If you have been stopping by here on Thursdays over the last few months, you have probably noticed that I tend to share poetry I have written about my grandmother and sometimes about her death. I haven't really found a "voice" to talk to her as I am living my life and she is no longer alive. When I reach for the phone to call her and then remember she is dead, I don't start talking to her anyway. At least not yet. (Though when I was cleaning my home office/studio a few weeks ago and kept running across letters from her/pictures of her in the oddest places I did start talking to her. "Janet, I have had about enough of this.") It is through my poems that I am finding my voice and addressing her. She is the "you" in my poetry.
Some people have mentioned that it must be healing to write about her. I am not sure I see it as healing. Though do we realize we are healing when we are or do we just notice it later? I don't know. One idea that has to come to me lately is this: By writing about her, I am a witness that she existed. She was a woman who didn't have many friends, she spent most of her days in her home, she wasn't close with many people, and she had a tendency to alienate others. But she changed my life. She taught me about laughter and acceptance and finding little joys in living a quiet life. It saddens me that it seems she didn't really teach anyone else these things. I am the one who experienced this side of her. And I can be her witness to share these pieces of her.
I also feel that writing/talking/sharing grief has to happen. We do not do this enough in our culture. I am almost bizarrely fascinated with it. I want to talk and talk and talk about my experience. I want to listen and learn from the experiences of others. And poetry has become a vehicle for both of these things.
The book of Olds’ poetry that I have been reading this week is all about her father, his illness, and his death. How to explain the feelings that come up as I read her words?
Before my grandmother died, I did not understand stories of people falling on the casket sobbing or someone pretending a loved one was still alive and talking to that person as though she is sitting across the dinner table with them, even when others are in the room. During my uncle’s funeral, his casket remained open. A song was played over the speakers while we all sat their quietly. My aunt stood up and went to the casket. I remember thinking, “does she know we all can see her?” I realize now that I was simply embarrassed by the intimacy of the moment. Goodness. Now I realize the last thing you are thinking about when standing looking at someone you love who is in a casket is what others are thinking about. This doesn’t matter much when you have lost a part of your heart.
After my grandmother died, I suddenly understood why people do all that they do that we cannot understand when “dealing with” the loss of someone they love. Sharon Olds writes about this in a way that has me nodding through my tears. I am fascinated by her words, her images, her truth. And, I suppose, I am also healed by reading.
To hear Sharon Olds read a poem from this book, visit poets.org via this link.
edited in 2011: Poetry Thursday is referenced throughout my blog in 2006 and 2007. It was a community website where participants shared a love of poetry through their blogs as they posted their own poems and poetry by others on Thursdays.