Words and Loss

“I do not know which to prefer
The beauty of inflections,
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.”
Wallace Stevens

Then what of the innuendos that are not simply lovely but terrify?  They haunt so often in silences, coming alive only where the greatest pain waits.  How we speak over and about such pain is striking: there is so much chatter around us, and in us.  A cheap, white noise live on demand twenty-four hours a day.  I’ve come to think of it, after too many years, as a sort of general anesthetic.

In his Nobel speech William Faulkner talks about “the old truths of the heart…lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed.”  Just like us.  And along with such ancient words–love, honor, pity, pride, compassion and sacrifice–a hunger to be more serious, there is always the power of silence as well.  Words facing loss, what we literally cannot say, these are the true mysteries that will never explain themselves and the cutting edge of language where the finest writers work.

It is good to remember, maybe more than a few times per week, how Socrates discovers he is the wisest man in Athens for what he does not know.  Such unflinching honesty is why the most important of our stories last: Gilgamesh, Oedipus, Medea, Job, Lear, Quixote, each leaves us with just questions, not answers, because they never say too much.  No poses, or lies about anything that matters, even in the face of overwhelming fear, and then finally always that brutal innuendo of silence for what cannot be said or known waiting at the heart of any story that will continue to matter.  The best imply far more than they can say or ever understand and we love them for it.  This use of silence is both humble and wise, informing a keen sense of limitation that makes the blindness of arrogance not simply tragic but absurd.

Face what you do not know and admit as much.  Or play the fool.  What a strange dignity to understand what you must lose.

I was a fool for a long time.  I’d read and taught these stories for many years and thought of them somehow as a kind of protection.  Wisdom texts is the pretentious phrase in American schools.  The Great Books.  Then both of my parents got very sick.  Years of illness and treatment.  Then alone for two days in our old house I was talking to my mother as she lay dying from lung cancer on a rented hospital bed in my parents’ bedroom.  By that point I had no idea if she could even hear me (though the hospice nurse insisted that hearing was the last sense to hold out).  So I sat with my mother, talking, above the sound of her breathing, and the music that I knew she loved, and that damn morphine pump.  I will never know if she heard me.  I spoke to her more honestly than I have ever spoken to another person.  Words have never seemed so meaningless or mattered more.  It was terrifyingly quiet in that room, just the two of us and the music and that pump, and from the first hour I knew that I was also talking against the silence and I kept talking for as long as I knew that she might be able to hear me, and the worst of the fear was how frightened we both might be if I stopped.

Middle-aged, the father of two small children, I had no idea how hard it was to die.  And then later once I did talk myself into leaving the room long after she had died, I walked out under one of those clear, black northern California skies, thick with stars.  It was mid-October, already cold.  And the distances of that sky and those flickering, tiny lights high above gutted me.  So much for lovely innuendos.  There are no words against such silence.  Talk, the old stories I knew by heart and so desperately wanted to write for so long, they just fall apart and there is no help for it.

And yet, if only for a time and in spite of the pain that is finally understood in the blood, words do speak for the best in us.  The rest is ignorance and silence.

Here are five small poems I think my mother might have liked, and all quite aware of being overwhelmed.  Or at least that was the attempt.





For Winston

From His Obituary

Dead By Cancer

…before his son was born.

“It couldn’t wait?”  Christ, Win,

your question haunts, taunts to let

you live in him

–no, pain has an end, yet

blinded, numb:

from you joy is completely torn.


Just Thinking

Mary calls saying Joe

he was right here

in the hallway

and three days

after his funeral like

after my dad’s she

tells me I

was reading National

Geographic the pages started

flipping by themselves then

I felt cold

from a draft

now the windows were

shut suddenly I knew

he was there

reminding me everything’s

all right you’re Irish

she says you’ll understand

and I want

to understand honest

to god but all

forget loss the bizarre

mystery even poignancy

their love all

I can think

about is that

that draft is cold


The Diffident Melancholics

Carl said, on several occasions,

I do not wish to go on–

well, what does one

do in such a position?


Night Rates

Late, by phone

my father and I

talk, voices

through wire

ghosts in the dark.

Now I


I am a boy

small and alone,

he will go


and I will

follow alone.


For My Daughter

even those words

my daughter

I cannot tell you

how dream-like

it’s beyond me

yet I hold on

and what I know

all I’ve ever known

in spite of myself

childish and guarding

they’re such clumsy words

I will care for you

I will care

as long as you need me

even dream-like

when nothing can be done

never forget this