Today I’m going to address this poem because it was more than what it seems—and is, if you know anything about loss.
Every so often I come across a poem that feels like a perfect poem. What does a “perfect poem” look like, read like? Who am I to say it’s perfect?
I don’t claim to speak for anyone but me, and perfection is found everywhere, it simply depends on your point of view. The poem “Grief,” by Cynthia Pitman, was perfect for me this morning when I woke up, when I finally stopped shaking, moving, and could see, read, and experience the world outside, via my inbox.
A perfect poem doesn’t look or read a certain way. It’s how it evokes, provokes, and elicits the reader’s reaction.
We read to find ourselves.
Didn’t you know? The highest calling of the writer then, is to know him or herself well enough to know their readers. Then, we write about us.
I came across a poem close to this one several years ago, in April of 2007. I informed my four older brothers who were planning Dad’s funeral that I would be giving the eulogy. I informed them, because they are all Mormon, and men run that show. But I was no longer LDS, so I didn’t play nor hold myself to those rules. I didn’t ask, only to be hummed and hawed until a well-placed hand on my shoulder explained the way of things. To ask would have been akin to relieving myself of the opportunity to speak at all.
So, I informed.
I was raised LDS, and my father, a convert to the Mormon Church when he was in his early teens, was far from the model Mormon man. And I wanted the huge crowd of people there—the biggest show of heads at a funeral I’d ever seen first-hand, who he was. And it was anything but disparaging. I don’t find anything redeeming about sprinkling glitter on dirt or ash. And my father, while alive, had as much of that in him as light and love, so much he could hardly contain it. Yet, he could never quite feel it for himself, or show it to those he loved without some “sting” to it.
So my brothers had made sure to follow Mormon protocols: the services would be held in the “ward,” the LDS chapel my father attended with all of us for close to 40 years. He would be painted as a faithful member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He would be lauded for his unfailing testimony of the “One and Only True Church.” In short, it would be a lie, and I can’t—couldn’t—abide anyone lying about my father. Out of all of us, I knew him—and loved him—best.
Mormon funerals are not about the deceased. That’s on purpose. They give the…. metadata of the person: birth date, church “achievements,” a token nod to what they did for work and one or two personal, individual “markers,” (he enjoyed singing and playing the tenor saxophone in a band for…) then, they tie-in the teachings of the LDS Church with the “Plan of Salvation” and how everyone can be together, forever. Even Dad, the most perfect incarnation of “imperfection” I’d ever known.
I honored him by telling the truth, my truth, about this beautiful, broken, astonishing, miracle-of-a-man.
I held the printed-out eulogy in a folder, and my oldest brother asked to see it. Couched in “teasing,” he tried to grab it from me. I knew why he wanted to see it so badly. Had I conformed? Did I even know the protocols after being gone from the faith for so long?
No, I had not. Yes, I did and no I did not. Silly of him to think otherwise.
At the end of my eulogy, I included a poem, not a scripture from the Book of Mormon, as required. The poem is by Jane Kenyon:
What Came to Me
I took the last
dusty piece of china
out of the barrel.
It was your gravy boat,
with a hard, brown
drop of gravy still
on the porcelain lip.
I grieved for you then
as I never had before.
I could barely whisper my way through it. It captured everything, everything.
I remember one of my brothers asking me about the gravy. Dad had never even made gravy. So… It was either the MBA or the doctor. Can’t remember which one, but…very confused about the gravy. Otherwise, nice job, little sis.
Which brings me full-circle to Cynthia Pitman’s “Grief.” The poem, the process, the emotion.
Writing poems about loss, death, grief, is tricky. Simplicity makes the largest mark. The imagery must be stark—not bleak, necessarily—but stark. Otherwise, it’s too easy for us to wriggle out of the grasp of inevitability. The “assured outcome” of our own mortality.
The loss, the small mind-photos, the minutiae of a life, captured in a hard, brown gravy drip or a smoke-brown hummingbird. The empty barrel, a spindly stick of a branch.
Outside, a smoke-brown hummingbird
flutters by the feeder,
then floats on the cold wind
to a spindly stick of a branch,
The handful of brown dirt we’re not allowed to throw onto the box except in movies, but flowers are allowed—as if the flowers will be sempiternal and, like the spirit of my father in the minds of those who wish and believe, will live on in full-color in Heaven. As if the dirt won’t subsume the strewn flowers once the casket descends to become One with the Earth.
strung sparse with wintered leaves,
in the gray San Francisco fog.
The dusty piece of china, the gray fog of San Francisco.
The poet begins the poem with the word, “outside,” because death is out there, away from us. But if we choose, we can see it all around us. For the most part, we choose to NOT. Not see. Until we’re forced to see.
And that is the internal process of grief mirrored in the details of the outer life, the outer shell that constitute the “remains,” and what remains; the “aliveness” of the person in our memories and hearts.
But inside, inside…words, too many words, are not needed.
Inside, we mourn.
Inside, we feel, not just the loss of the person we know, knew, loved. No, inside resides the grief we feel for ourselves and for you, with you, our readers.
So, we find echoes of life within the dust. The fluttering wings, the cold wind, the branch that only sleeps in winter, but returns, blooming with life, come spring. Memories of dinners with brown gravy, laughter, families encircling tables, discord within the harmony, the memory’s edge softened with time, love, and nostalgia.
All the while, inside…the entire world as we see it through grief and loss, is covered in dust, clouded by the fog of inevitability.
Thank you Ms. Pitman, for showing me myself today as you showed us yourself, your grief for the dedicatee.
It was, in a word, perfect.