“And were you loved?”
“And did you love in return?”
I believe those are quotations from a poem by Raymond Carver, but I cannot find a copy. The words are simple, unspectacular but have that emotional “catch” that grabs at the gullet. The catch can expand like a bottomless canyon, but for me today the catch is quick to come: my mother’s death. This is the first January since 1928 that she won’t be here for her birthday. She loved me–sometimes in a strangly childish way. Sometimes I felt that I was the mother; sometimes I felt that I was holding (metaphorically) a child who had returned from a day at school where she was laughed at or bullied. I had to comfort her. Comforting a mother or a child leads to that kind of deep emotional catch. It’s an unexpected bump that trips you and suddenly you descend into cascades of emotion.
Yes, each person was loved. Each person had a mother, who felt and hoped and wished for something when the babe quickened. Each person was loved, even–perhaps especially–terrorists, murderers. All had someone who loved him or her.
And now…where has that love gone, that powerful force that pushes babies out of the womb and pushes people into the air? The perversion of love to the idea that, as Yeats put it, “the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Musée des Beaux Arts
by WH Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Copyright © 1976 by Edward Mendelson, William Meredith and Monroe K. Spears,
Executors of the Estate of W. H. Auden.”
I turn to poetry, as I do more frequently as I age–for almost all occasions, including the most mundane (the poetry of shopping, the poetry of driving…it’s all there). And yet….
“The Death of a Soldier”
by Wallace Stevens
Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.
He does not become a three-days personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.
Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,
When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.
All are soldiers, every one of us, soldiering on through life, never knowing when the expected death will come. We don’t usually think of it much when we get up and go to work; life does not seem too perilous on a simply grey January morning, yet to soldier on is, I think, to be willing to live without immediate answers. To risk each day knowing that loss can come from anyplace—from a hospital bed, down from the sky, from an intransigent worm within. To try to live without contemplating that risk, to go on going on, signing leases, paying earthly mortgages, preparing for an indefinate future that is finate indeed….
And yes, they were all loved, everyone of them.