How Does One Comfort A Poet?
essay by
Joan Malerba-Foran

                                                              —Let us go then, you and I—
                                                                                        T.S. Eliot

     Recently, a friend sent me a note in which he apologized for not keeping in touch. He wrote that he hadn’t been much in the mood for writing, made a comment about not feeling well, then in one alarming sentence stated that he was deeply depressed, that he’d lost interest in everything—even food—and he was rapidly losing weight. I reread the note several times, mentally unlooping his ink-and-spindle handwriting to make certain I hadn’t misunderstood. The news was all the more startling because if there is one image that comes to mind whenever I think of R----, it’s a slab of polished marble standing cool in the blazing sun. He is, as they say, like a rock, with a seemingly endless capacity to support any heavy load of manure that life dumps his way. And although we are as unalike in tone and temperament as e. e. cummings and T. S. Eliot, we are friends. I sometimes think he’s important to me because of, rather than in spite of, our differences, which fits my abbreviated definition of friendship.
     So there I stood in my kitchen, while picturing him several states away, dozing in a darkened bedroom and pushing aside cups of broth or tea with small protests of  “No thank you. Maybe later.” I looked up his number (we generally only correspond by mail) and was shocked when he finally came to the phone. I’d expected his confident baritone; this voice, however, rustled dry as paper flowers. He said it was all true—he couldn’t seem to rouse from the bitterness of betrayal that a sibling problem had uncovered. He said that he’d lost more weight and was cold all the time, so very, very cold. I wished him well, told him I’d write soon, and hung up full of altruistic intentions. But five days passed and I didn’t write. I got the uncomfortable feeling that truth-be-told I wasn’t going to contact R----. When a few more days passed, I could confess that the stumbling block—masking as writer’s block—was that we were both writers.
     It certainly wasn’t because I had an issue with emotional distress, either mine or anyone I cared about. As Frost wrote with wrenching simplicity, "I am one acquainted with the night." I can even quantify it—my stillborn son is a greater pain but a lesser loss compared with my father’s death. In the former, the pain shoved me so deep into self that when I emerged ten years later I was able to chronicle the experience in a series of poems, an amazing feat since I’d never written anything, let alone poetry. Indeed, the only poems I even knew I’d learned in elementary school: “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “Casey at the Bat.” Secretly, I’d memorized Longfellow’s “The Rainy Day” (I now see that as a signal that I had a poetic sensibility). But until I left home at nineteen, the only poetry in my life was from Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose, the King James Bible, Dante’s Inferno, and Longfellow’s Complete Poems.
     You might think that isn’t much of a list, but it only takes one good book, and it was when I heard the sing-song cadence of my father reciting “The Song of Hiawatha” that I was transformed. My heartbeat would ride the rhythm, my limbs loosen in the euphoria of perfect rhyme, and when he announced, “By the shores of Gitche Gumee/By the shining Big-Sea-Water/Stood the wigwam of Nokomis/Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis—” I swelled near-to-bursting. It became my habit to slip Longfellow off my father’s shelf and hide in my room, then I’d sneak it back before he got home from work. One evening, I was sprawled on the floor thumbing through comic books while my dad read in bed. “What’s this?,” he asked. I lifted my head and looked down the length of him. He was holding up a bobby pin, my forgotten bookmark. Before I could make up an excuse he asked, “Which poem do you like?” I hopped on the bed and started reciting. By the time I got to, “Be still sad heart! and cease repining/Behind the clouds is a sun still shining,” he’d joined in and we galloped toward the end: “Thy fate is the common fate to all/Into each life some rain must fall/Some days must be dark and dreary.” Forty two years later, our family formed a living rosary around his hospice bed as he died from lung cancer. He spent that last day in a coma, listening to me reading Psalm Twenty Three over and over. Even in a coma, he mumbled during the readings with enough agitation that the nurse asked me to stop. “Better to let him rest,” she whispered. (He never made another sound until the moment he died, when he shouted “No!”)
     My father and I shared one other poem, but let me back up a bit. The year before his death my father was “cured.” The cancer had been removed, the tests had come back negative, and he’d gained a few pounds. In short order, however, he was pale and frail again, spending much of his time buttoning cardigans, arranging blankets on his lap, staring out the picture window at passing cars. He’d put his reading glasses in a case and had slid them into some drawer; he looked younger without them, even though his blue-black hair had turned steel gray during radiation and chemo. I thought, Give it time. He’ll feel better soon, and went to the library every week to check out books that might interest him. He asked me to stop but I ignored him. I kept lugging them over by the armload—books on painting, religion, and history. They remained untouched until their due date, when I’d lug them back. I never asked him why he wouldn’t read; I assumed, as the doctors said, that it was depression and he’d come around. One afternoon I brought over a book detailing the controversial renovation of the Sistine Chapel. His eyes brightened when I mentioned Michelangelo, but he waved the book aside. Frustrated, I snapped, “Dad, come on. The doctors say you’re fine.” He looked at me for a long moment, then quietly said, “They’re too heavy. Any book. I can’t hold them up.” He rolled on his side, curled into the fetal position, and pulled his sweater tightly across his gaunt torso.
     The next day, sans books, I sat with him on the sun porch where it was bright and warm. He’d just finished a full can of EnsureTM, which only furthered the belief that dad was getting better. We silently watched the silent woods. After a bit, I asked if he’d like to take a walk. He turned his head away. I asked again, and again he ignored me. “Dad,” I said, “you’ve got to let go of this. You’re fine. Trust the doctors.” When he looked at me, his eyes were dark wounds in his crumpled face. “You too?” He dropped his hands into the nest of his lap, his fingers knotted like a pile of twigs. “I just don’t want to die alone. Is that so much to ask?”
     Anyone who has witnessed dying knows that it’s a process, and that the tiers of recognition and acceptance are greased with denial, making it a treacherous journey. His resignation hit me hard, and I realized that regardless of what the doctors were saying, my father also needed to be heard. This meant I had to stop waving at him from ahead to catch up emotionally, or stop pushing him from behind to go faster. I had to travel with him—as far as I could go—arm-in-arm. I told him that I’d be right back and returned within the hour. He was still in his recliner. The sun was dropping; every object in the room was outlined in the gold and rose of last-light. A chorus of crows bobbled on the bare maple branches spiking out from the woods. In my pocket was one folded poem. I read aloud:

 Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

I told him that a poet named Jane Kenyon had written “Let Evening Come.” He didn’t need to know that she’d died of cancer, only that she had a message: he wasn’t alone—he would never be alone—for God does not leave us comfortless. As a writer, I’d always marveled at the poem’s simple construction, how Kenyon delivers a message without a messenger, how all creation—sun, stars, moon, nature, animals, humans—is commanded without any show of force. Kenyon cleverly hides, in plain sight, the Genesis-initiating command to “Let there be light,” by mirroring it with “Let evening come.” Evening is to death as light is to life: they are the same but not equal. Here the word “evening” has the equally important function of bringing forth the concept of an even-ing, a leveling or smoothing. As “the light of late afternoon” is “moving up the bales as the sun moves down,” the statement “Let evening come” means also to “Let even-ing come.” The balance that Kenyon achieves between the natural and the spiritual worlds makes me want to genuflect in awe.
     Even though, or maybe even because my father was unaware of the poem’s structure, it did what I knew it could do. It offered my father a thread of words to follow into the darkening shed that was his body. For a moment he was tethered; the spiral of despair was stayed. I’d wanted to give him what poetry gives me in general, and also what a particular poem does when the timing is right—when the printed words merge with both the poet’s voice and my need. Then the message connects with my mind, heart, and soul, allowing what I know, believe and hope to become one. I was glad for my father, while at the same time feeling that tinge of jealously I get when someone hears a truly good poem for the first time. Added to that was the reality of my experience at that moment was far less satisfying for one other reason: Kenyon’s poem was based on acceptance and I was not ready to accept that my father was dying. The pace of my journey was more charged. I stood shoulder to shoulder, shaking my fist at the sky, with Dylan Thomas:
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
What adult child would not swing that hammer of  words? What dying person would not want Kenyon’s? As a writer there were no words for me to write, at least not yet. I knew that shaping coherence out of grief takes decades; the distillation process can’t be hurried. I’ve read pieces where the author has, for emotional or financial reasons, published such work and it always lacks a certain grace—the grace of comfort, I think.
     When there are only “other words” for me to give, I’m confident that from my personal and formal studies I’ll find something appropriate for any “non-poetry” person on any occasion. My family members have all heard of Emily Dickinson, but they’d be surprised to know that she wrote, “I like the look of agony/Because I know it’s true.” Properly timed, poems can have an effect like no other form of written expression for confronting grief. Ironically, for  joyous occasions something from Hallmark is the most effective and least costly (in terms of work and research) to take. Joyful messages proclaim only one of three things: I’m happy for me, I’m happy for you, or I’m happy for us. One can state outright, “I’m so happy for you,” and the message is complete. But to write, “I’m so sorry for you”…what does that mean? Maybe the main problem with grief is that it comes from a barren island sparsely inhabited by monochromatic memories:
A door just opened on a street—
I, lost, was passing by—
And instant's width of warmth disclosed,
And wealth, and company.

The door as sudden shut, and I,
I, lost, was passing by,—
Lost doubly, but by contrast most,
Enlightening misery.

My friend is familiar with all of Dickinson’s works. In fact, he’d once written me in a fury when I sent him some quotes, blithely unaware that the editor had repunctuated her work into “standard” form. All the sentiment that I’d intended was lost on R---  in his scholarly pursuit of properly punctuated poems.
     Knowing, as Emily states, “I measure every grief I meet/With analytic eyes/I wonder if it weighs like mine/Or has an easier size,” I’m at a loss on what I can write to R--- in the midst of a depression. He is far more knowledgeable than me, so what words can I send? Perhaps my title, “How Does One Comfort a Poet,” was misleading. It implied that I was going to answer the question, instead of raising more of them. For all my sincerity, the closest I can come to any answer is to think back to the magical affect T. S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” had on my neighbor. Mr. L---- suffered a stroke at the age of seventy six and lost the ability to read to such an extent he couldn’t read his own name, or anything he wrote with his own hand. One morning I’d walked over and we sat in his parlor drinking tea. He was in fairly good spirits, but complained every so often  about this or that: he forgot names, his hearing wasn’t good, he couldn’t bite into apples, doughnuts gave him heartburn. From my meager repertoire, I mentally substituted pronouns in a verse from Prufrock, gave a mock sigh and exclaimed:
You grow old ... You grow old ...
You shall wear the bottoms of your trousers rolled.

Shall you part your hair behind? Do you dare to eat a peach?
You shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
You have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to you.

He burst into laughter. His wife came running from the kitchen, a look of confusion and wonder on her face. It was the first time he’d laughed since his stroke. From then on whenever he slipped into a funk, we had only to say, “You grow old…You grow old…” and his mood lightened. I’d like to think of myself as the crow figure from Frost’s “Dust of Snow,” in that some part of a day that Mr. L--- had rued was saved. (I’m too aware of Frost’s pragmatism to make that mistake, but I did bring something that facilitated a change of mood when I brought Eliot’s poem.)
     When it comes to my friend and his distress, I know that I can’t facilitate the exhilaration or epiphany that others get when they hear a poem for the first time. I hadn’t actually realized until I called him that I knew how to comfort family and friends with a confidence I lack with fellow writers. When it came to my father’s question, “I just don’t want to die alone. Is that so much to ask?” I’d already heard the answer in Kenyon’s poem. She’d asked the same question of herself and answered it: comfort was everywhere, even “in the lung” where his cancer grew. Mr. L---- was not alone in desiring an apple or peach, or rolling his pants cuffs as youth shrunk away. And I’ve never wandered far from Frost with my sorrows. When my son was stillborn, I roamed the back roads of my town repeating “Acquainted with the Night.” Until then, it was only a well-crafted sonnet in terza rima, but after Brian’s death it shielded me from an impersonal universal like a thick cape on a cold night. Frost had gone before me and left a message of hope about the “far away” and “interrupted cry” of a child’s death. He had “walked out in rain—and back in rain.” More than that, he affirmed that “the time was neither wrong nor right.” Minus the poetry and in plain language, shit happens.
     What can I offer my friend? I can offer him a hand to hold in the dark. I have no light—no answer—on how to comfort a poet, a person who uses words to make sense of life and create what Frost called a momentary stay against confusion. Sometimes there is nothing to say; sometimes, all you need to do is be there. In the course of writing this, I realized that I will write to R---. I will tell him that I’m worried, that he needs to eat, sit in a sunny window, and reflect on those events where he discovered something about himself. I’ll send him this essay and end it with an invitation:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question...
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.
I know that he’s read this before, but not because I sent it. Maybe the comfort will come not from my words, or from Dickinson, Frost, or Eliot, but simply from my extending them. The way to comfort a poet is the way one goes about comforting anyone in distress; extend Eliot’s invitation, “Let us go then, you and I…” It’s merely the poetic way of saying to a friend, You are not alone.

                                                —Joan Malerba-Foran

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