especially for Brittany
The other day I got my first amazon box of summer reading. The contents were varied – a couple of books recommended to help me better understand Catholicism, some books by Frederick Buechner to find if I can enjoy his work, several books by writers about writing (Stephen King, Ellen Gilchrist, among others) – and poetry: Donald Hall’s Without and Mary Oliver’s Why I Wake Early. I haven’t picked up Hall’s book yet – I am a bit shy of the pain I know I will find there when my emotions are taut with semester-ending tensions – but I gulped Oliver’s book like a starving woman and am now revisiting it more slowly and mindfully.
I am, as I had expected to be, awed. Simplicity and depth combined are rare. Imagery that my technically-minded husband sees without poetry-killing explanation is even rarer – but he has enjoyed my insistent readings instead of merely indulging me with rolled eyes and mind in some other universe. In “At Black River,” he loved her image of the alligator napping in the river: “its dark, slick bronze [soaking] / in a mossy place,” but especially the teeth: “a multitude / set / for the comedy / that never comes.” “Like a clown mask,” he said.
The poem goes on to describe the alligator’s awakening and the death it brings to fish or unwary bird. The description is objective, very nearly devoid of emotion. Then the final two stanzas:
I’m not afraid.
There is such an unleashing
Then I remember:
death comes before
the rolling away
of the stone.
What an affirmation of hope this is to me. Death lies napping in “a mossy place,” wakes “to boom, and thrust forward, / paralyzing” his prey. We can see it with objectivity from a distance, but finally the very description strikes horror to the soul. And yet – and yet – in this fallen world, the way to eternity lies behind the stone-sealed door of the tomb.
A student lost her grandfather recently, the first death she’s encountered. It was confusing, she said – good to know she would see him again someday, but unthinkable that he won’t be there when she visits her grandmother this summer; good that the family had the chance to say goodbye, but heart-rending that the necessity exists. I could only think of the deaths to come of beloved parents and how I long for their immortality, not elsewhere but here and with me now, even understanding that they are immortal despite the forced separation of the fall.
How could one face the horror of death not knowing that the stone will be rolled away? Philip Larkin writes of the terror of annihilation in “Aubade”:
The mind blanks at the glare. [. . .]
[. . .]
[A]t the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
[. . .]
[T]his is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
I know so little of anything, and understand so much less. Lord, thank You for the certainty of the empty tomb.