Death Be Not Proud

I am in London, and will be until July. The week before I left, the editor of a documentary I helped make was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor. Two days after I arrived in London, I learned that a colleague of mine in BYU’s English department — Gary Hatch — had suddenly passed away of a pulmonary embolism.  He was a decade younger than I am. Death is no respecter of persons.

I happen to have brought a suddenly very appropriate book of poetry with me: The Clearing by Philip White (BYU graduate, raised LDS). I have been paying close attention to White’s book, especially given these events. His poems are evocative, tragic, cathartic. White manages to find the precise words to resonate with something we all have felt (or will feel), and which we want expressed.

I know Philip White, have known him since we both were children. I also knew his parents, whose deaths had a profound effect on him, and are the subject of several poems. I knew his first wife, who also died young and tragically — which tore through his soul.

In “Family Prayer,” Philip talks about aching knees on a braided rug, and the devotional moments when “we felt our lives knit in words, night and morning.”

We know more of damage now
and evil: lives shredded by time
Or, worse, the kind that blossoms back
behind the trouble in the mind,
The routine cruelties, pacts made
With shame and rage, the daily
Weave of grief muffling it all.

I also brought The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold with me — a fine work of fiction. My eighteen-year-old son has begun reading it. The second sentence in the book is “I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” The first chapter details the murder. My son’s immediate question was, “Do they catch the guy who did it?”

Of course, I didn’t want to answer that. Part of Sebold’s suspense is the possibility of the murderer’s capture. But retribution is not what the book is about. It’s about what a family does when its whole fabric is lacerated. How do we manage grief?

We need writers is to guide us through those unimaginable moments when we face some kind of dissolution. We don’t want to be cajoled; we don’t want notebooks filled with repetitions of “Sorry for your loss” (sweet as they are); we absolutely don’t want our experience dismissed by a tidy story — even if it has some important truths in it. (Hence, the “footprints in the sand” poster doesn’t do all that much when someone is in present and relentless agony.) We want someone who has been there, who GETS IT, who isn’t nearly as nice as he/she is truthful. The best writers embrace us with their words and images, invite us nakedly into a world we have hardly dared acknowledge, and lead us to ourselves.

Philip White remembers his mother (and makes me remember her, too) in “From the Country of the Sun.”

You were girlish, I thought, even then,
Like Miranda in her new world: “Such creatures!”
I almost hear you say. And your rapture
When you finally saw the sea, the brazen
Everyday glare on the wet sand, and you
Standing there scarcely containing your joy,
Still strong enough to make a shadow.

I read that poem and saw Philip’s mother, Patricia White, wearing the many delighted faces she had worn since I first met her, when I was probably four years old. She was such a beauty! And she aged beautifully. And then sometime in her seventies, she got cancer. I hardly recognized her — so small, so small — in her coffin. I embraced Philip at the viewing. I don’t recall saying anything.

What could I say? It took some years for Philip to wrest poetry from grief, I believe.

I feel the familiar yearning for those I have lost when I read his words:

Come back to me sometimes. I wander now too,
am a shadow with you here with you in this other life.

Right now, at this moment — and I am writing this post at the exact time when Gary Hatch’s funeral is being held in Provo — this is what I want the Association for Mormon Letters to celebrate: good works, howling songs (whether howling like King Lear or like Ginsberg), echoes of something exquisitely painful but, to our amazement, also transcendently sweet.

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3 Responses to Death Be Not Proud

  1. Thanks for this. We all need to be reminded sometimes of just what art can do in our lives.

  2. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I agree. I read this days ago and felt it deeply. Sobering. Inspired a reverence that, I think, left me hestitant to attempt a comment.

    I was able to locate snatches of White’s poetry online. This comes from [i]The Clearing[/i] as well:

    [u][u]Crow[/u][/u]

    Awake early, walking, a man looks up
    at a crow in flight, notes for the first time
    the exact but minutely adaptive arc
    the shouldering wings describe. He feels it
    in his arms, the strain, the oaring stride,
    his chest a prow dividing the warm
    morning air. Around, shops opening, noise
    of trucks and cars. How long has the man
    been out walking? How many years,
    for unchangeable reasons? Then one morning
    a crow picks across a colorless sky
    and he understands. Nothing is given.
    The man also must choose how to turn
    his head, what to look at, where to land.

  3. Wm Morris says:

    Philip White’s "Cricket" is the subject of today’s Payday Poetry at A Motley Vision: http://www.motleyvision.org/2010/payday-poetry-cricket-philip-white/

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