On a Bereavement

I
Mourning Sickness

Can anybody say how long it lasts,
This numbness that deceives while it relieves
The harrowed brain? My senseless state contrasts
So markedly with that of he who grieves
In honest but conventional display,
In typecast manner, equally sincere,
But may I say, the day she passed away,
Was anguish any help to her to hear?

Exemplars for my silence may be found:
Few patterns for my infinite regret.
Excuses plead for me, the words compound
The pain I gave her, how can I forget?
Bring joy to her and clemency to me,
My soul with hers? If only that could be!

 

II
A Death-bed Concession

They let her die at home. And this meant no
More artificial bright-and-breeziness
From health professionals who try to show
Bons mots dispel a patient’s queasiness,

They pander to our vain deluded hopes.
Their best prognoses worse than horoscopes,
Otologists alone can mend our ears
And only the proctologist our rears.

With stethoscope and specs around their necks
They tell us that her time has sadly come.
This much she knows, and this what she expects:
To certainties she cannot but succumb.

For some the cri de coeur to die transcends
The moral qualms to which she need not bow:
Without the means to compass our own ends
Can we be guilty just for knowing how?

No power had she to perish or persist,
To go beyond the brink, abandon me.
So hard sometimes to think we can exist
In unilateral dependency.

She could not eat, nor could she longer speak,
Fed through a tube, could neither bite nor chew.
Too bleak the scene, to bleat or weep, too weak
Was she to see another morning dew!

This mourning due? Bereavement yet unborne.
Catharsis it may bring to some, not me.
Forlorn I feel, forlorn and battle-worn
And yet I cannot mourn, it cannot be.

A mind refined, so kind was she, inclined
To see the best in me; I was at first
The one for her, not cursed, I trust, to find
At last she might have found the very worst?

I cannot say just why I cannot grieve;
A trumped-up rage supplants my wretchedness,
That she should drift to sleep so soon and leave
Me unprepared for this expectedness.

A little late it is, I think, to say
I prized her for her troubles lightly worn,
And bigger burdens bravely borne. This day
Is blank for me and lifeless is the dawn.

Though scarcely could she move her head yet she
Brought dignity and courage with each breath.
For all her trials there must surely be
A special place to take her after death.

If only I could help her as I should,
My own faults legion, I would simply fail:
She knew I would have helped her if I could,
But my attempts were all to no avail.

So often in great pain was she that night
(And how refined her torments were!) she was
Incapable of pointing to the site
She could not say how much it hurt because

At last she lost the remnant of her voice.
Too faint by now to tell me where each pain
She suffered hurt, it left her with no choice:
Remain in pain, complain again in vain.

All through the dreary night her throat was raw,
She dared not drink too much for she could not
Take any liquid in, nor even draw
It through a straw. That night she was too hot,

Sometimes she was too cold: We tried to set
The thermostat; to what, she could not say.
Sometimes she’d sleep and, let us hope, forget
The trials of her waking hours for they

Were filled with aches, discomfort, restlessness
While in and out of consciousness, a state
That alternated with her breathlessness,
And kept some stolen moments consecrate.

And sometimes she was in a darker place
Than that in which she lay; where sadly we
Would hear her most despondent cries: her face
Wore every sorrow that could ever be.

Sometimes, frustrated by her helplessness,
Her cries, so lonely and so desolate;
Their trigger, difficult to try to guess,
Too terrible to even contemplate.

Her aches grew worse and worse as it grew late,
For pain relief she gave me no assent,
I talked to her, I tried to cope with great
And sorrowful and piteous lament.

And someone else was in the room that night
Unseen by me yet charged with light and prone
Like the ascetic or the eremite
To wander in the desert all alone.

And in the land of Abraham and Job
That stick He bore would probe the arid sand,
Saul’s woollen shawl withal His linen robe,
His sandals and His girdle deeply tanned.

And then we saw her fire was out, lengthwise
She lay, worn out by life, her labours done.
And long before the morning light her eyes
Were closed tight shut, and all her tears were gone.

Benign she looked as ever in her life.
I wished I could have lain there in her place
Or could have done more to allay the strife
That constantly beset her mortal life.

bons mots: witty remarks
cri de coeur: cry of the heart, passionate appeal 

 

III
Portents and Tributes

She never met the Christ she sighed to see,
Whom Judas sold, another man denied,
The Golden Gate, the Sea of Galilee,
Mount Calvary where he was crucified.
The shadow of the cross upon the wall
In Nazareth, death’s portent in the room,*
Blood-red the moon at noon, and over all
The blackest pall when Christ broke from his tomb.

She never saw Judaea’s hallowed ground
But here in ancient Aramaic script
A tribute scrawled upon the shifting sand
And strewn about and all around and slipped
Among the flowers on her grave we found
Madonna lilies from the Holy Land.

* vide “The Shadow of Death” by William Holman Hunt.

Poet’s Note: To Dina, whose exemplary stoicism and immense courage sustained her through a particularly aggressive form of Motor Neurone Disease. From diagnosis to her death on 2nd January 2020 she lived barely a year.

 

Peter Hartley is a retired painting restorer. He was born in Liverpool and lives in Manchester, UK.

 


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21 Responses

    • Peter Hartley

      Thank you, Leo, for your kind remark. The last six lines were supposed to be imbued with hope too but they went through so many final final versions, and I’m not sure Evan even received most of them, if any at all, so perhaps those six I should transcribe here:

      And someone else was in the room that night,
      Unseen by me yet charged with light and prone
      Like the ascetic or the eremite
      To wander in the desert all alone.

      And in the land of Abraham and Job
      That stick he wore would probe the arid sand,
      His woollen shawl withal his linen robe,
      His girdle and his sandals lightly tanned.

      We knew her sun would rise in brighter skies.
      She lay, worn out by life, her labours done.
      And long before the morning light her eyes
      Were gently closed, her tears and mine were gone.

      No kinder woman in the human race,
      I wished I could have lain there in her place
      Or could have done more to allay the strife
      That constantly beset her mortal life.

      III Scents and Portents

      She never met the Christ she sighed to see,
      Whom Judas sold, another man denied,
      The Golden Gate, the Sea of `Galilee,
      Mount Calvary where he was crucified.
      The shadow of the cross upon the wall
      In Nazareth, death’s portent in the room;
      Blood-red the moon at noon, and over all
      The blackest pall when Christ broke from his tomb.

      She never saw Judaea’s hallowed ground
      But here in ancient Aramaic script
      A tribute scrawled upon the shifting sand
      And strewn about and all around and slipped
      Among the flowers on her grave we found
      Madonna lilies from the Holy Land.

      [The final stanza eschewing punctuation altogether]

      Reply
  1. James A. Tweedie

    Peter, what a heartfelt tribute to one who was blessed to have been loved by you. Many touching and memorable lines. The one that spoke to me most deeply was this:

    Forlorn I feel, forlorn and battle-worn…

    That about sums it up. All the rest is rambling thatcomes back into focus when the numbness and exhaustion wears off. You opened your heart with these words and captured your feelings and thoughts with piercing and profound eloquence. Thank you for sharing Dina with us.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      James – In the nature of things few of us, fortunately, are bereft very often, and my response was not what I expected. What I expected was that I would be running from room to room and constantly picking up and putting down things that Dina owned, wailing like a banshee, forcing myself to relive the more readily accessible memories that we shared. The truth was very different for me (for everyone?). “I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless” says E B Browning, and so it seems to be, as I wrote in “Mourning Sickness”, introduced by a rhetorical question. What I expected and DID find to be true is what I have described as the pathos in the trivial. Thomas Hardy was a master of this. A couple of days ago I found behind a seldom-used folding table a tiny disposable mouthpiece that had been part of a mask connected to D’s ventilator. The thought of this brought to mind the constant sub-human wheezing noises it made as its bellows rose and fell, essential to an existence for which D was no longer responsible. Now THAT I found affecting!

      Reply
  2. Rod

    Peter this is deeply poignant and beautiful poetry. Harrowing, haunting and full of human insight. I love the way you have introduced hope and ultimately redemption for a woman who is clearly “above rubies”. It is seldom that I am reduced to tears these days. Thank you for sharing your most profound experience with such eloquence.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Rod – Thank you very much indeed for your kind and very thoughtful remarks. In particular my thanks to you for honing in straight away on the implication of the third part, and the belief in a redemption that godlessness denies. I’m glad, too, that you found the poem so moving.

      Reply
  3. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    These are admirably crafted, heart-touchingly beautiful poems that capture the wonder of love and the angst of grief perfectly – a privilege to read.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      …As she was indeed a privilege to know. A tragedy, though, that merits and virtues are often so much more apparent post mortem than they ever are during a lifetime of thinking we know somebody. This is what some of the self-flagellation in this poem is all about. Thank you, Susan, for your kind remarks.

      Reply
  4. Dave Whippman

    Anyone who has suffered bereavement can relate to these pieces, perhaps especially “Death-Bed Concession.” Skilfully written and very clearly heartfelt.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Dave – It is interesting that you say “anyone who has suffered bereavement can relate to what I have written” because I only realise now after the event that if I hadn’t gone through it I know I couldn’t. Certainly heartfelt, thank you, but perhaps not quite so well written as the three drafts after this. See if you can spot the non-rhyme among the quatrains. It really is amazing how these things slip through the net isn’t it?

      Reply
  5. David Watt

    Thank you Peter for sharing your deeply moving tribute to Dina.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      David – And thank you for taking the trouble to read it. In a way it was easier than I thought it was going to be to write, but with so many thoughts swimming in my head it was hard to keep it to manageable length. Perhaps it marks the beginning of the catharsis that I need.

      Reply
  6. Monty

    I wish there was a way, Pete, in which I could physically display to you my sheer reverence for the above paean; but I’ll have to try with words. The first word that comes to mind is hardcore: hardcore anguish, and hardcore grief . . straight from the horses mouth. An open and unrestrained outpouring of torment, reflection, and searching . . beginning with a question; and thereafter containing many more questions . . the type of unanswerable questions which only the death of one close can pose.

    How effortlessly you bring the reader right into the thick of your anguish – akin to a live commentary on the final weeks and days – with your constant reflecting on the past (the things not done, Jerusalem, etc), the present, and the future (the things which now can never be done). No reader can fail to be affected in one way or another; and no reader can fail to sense the utter helplessness in your very first question: “Can anybody say how long this numbness lasts?” Hardcore mourning, straight to the front of the reader’s mind.

    And what a way to get your mourning onto the page: with such beautiful, disciplined poetry. It’d be easy to allow the poetry to take second-place against such a deep, hard-hitting subject; but the artist in you would never allow that to happen. It’s the quality of writing which affords the reader the scope to fully feel your grief. I’m reminded of your poetic eulogy to your Grandad on these pages last year, which you wrote so gracefully and vividly, it somehow gave dignity to his life . . and I feel that the above piece has given the same dignity to Dina.

    Cry, man.. cry! Get it all out.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Monty – As somebody who, until eighteen months ago, had never written a poem in his life (apart from a couple of gut-wrenchingly embarrassing blasts of euphuistic juvenilia in a school magazine) I must say that I have found your comments, critiques and analyses on these pages remarkably and immeasurably instructive and encouraging. I don’t just mean those comments pertaining to me. I do though, on two occasions in particular, remember when I have been very much minded to hang up my sword and you have been instrumental in dissuading me from doing so. My membership of SCP and the comments I see here from time to time make me sometimes doubt if I really know what a poem is. Even at a purely “liturgical” level I took it as a given that the initial letters of lines were written in upper case. This was good enough for Caxton’s Chaucer in the 1470s, as indeed was rhyme and scansion for Spenser, Shakespeare and Marlowe in the next century. Above all though (and excusing comic verse from this sweeping generalisation) and none the less creditable for their being so oft quoted, are the words of Wordsworth, that “poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility”. I had always accepted this too as a given. Of those five sonnets I wrote to my grandfather and the Great War, and of which you made so many kind and thoughtful remarks at the time, I might have said (were I to put myself for a moment in the august company of Wilfred Owen) “The Poetry is in the pity”. I suppose I do try to make things simpler for myself. It is certainly easier to charge the emotions with a subject like the Great War than it is to get too excited about the table manners of the Wry-necked Mexican Dung Beetle for example. Thank you once again for your thoughtful comments, and strange to say, although I do have a mind of my own I’m not sure there is much you have written seriously about anybody else’s work than mine, for good or bad, that has not chimed with my own views, which is quite handy when we all ostensibly support the same cause. The words “singing”, “from”, “the”, “same”, “hymn” and “sheet” spring to mind.

      Reply
      • Peter Hartley

        Evan, I noticed this evening that you have very kindly amended the whole of my third stanza for me. As forming the climax, these changes were the most important of all for me and gave the whole poem its reason for being. Many many thanks for that.

      • Monty

        . . . yeah, that’s a relevant analogy to use, Pete: ‘The poetry is in the pity’. In Owen’s case, the pity was in the war; in your case, the pity is in your loss. In either case, the pity is to the fore. Which has led me to wonder: could it not also be said that ‘The pity is in the poetry’?

        I must say I was mildly alarmed to hear you say that you’ve previously considered “hanging up your sword”. My feelings about that can easily be described in the following words: preposterous.. over-dramatic.. unwarranted.. totally unnecessary. But above all.. why? Why did you even consider such a thing? It’s not as though your offerings to SCP have elicited consistently negative appraisals: far from it. From what I’ve seen here, your poems have always received the praise they deserve: and what’s more, many of them have subsequently sparked some invigorating discussions in the comments-section . . which is not by accident, ‘coz such discussions generally only happen when the poem itself is a thought-provoking one.

        I for one always look forward to your offerings, and it’s obvious from other folks responses that I’m not alone. Also (if I may blow my own trumpet) I hope and trust that, over time, you’ve discerned that I always say things as I see them when evaluating poems on these pages. It’s known at SCP that I’m no poetry expert when it comes to the finer technicalities of the art, but I’m always truthful, and I never hide behind the dangers of politeness. I don’t hold back, either in giving the highest of praise or the harshest of criticism. And given what you said in your previous missive, it seems like you recognise that trait in me, thus you trust my words. In which case, I don’t have to concern myself with wondering if you think I’m just being polite or diplomatic. You were born with an affinity with the written-word, and you were born to write poetry. It’s always been inside you. It doesn’t matter at what age you actually started writing the stuff; these things won’t be rushed. They come out of us when they’re naturally ready to come out: whether we’re 22 or 72!

        But there’s another aspect of your poetry, Pete – a seldom-mentioned aspect of poetry – which puts you in a glorious minority. Yeah, it’s a given that your poems are always interesting subjects: beautifully written in a clear and concise manner: abundantly rich in language: metrically perfect: strong in rhymes . . . but so are the poems of at least a third of the contributors to SCP. The aspect which sets your poems apart is that they always seem to come from the right place: from deep inside you, giving the impression that you didn’t choose to write the poem.. the poem chose you to write it. If that sounds a bit obscure, let me try to explain my feelings . . . Whenever annual commemorations come back around – easter.. valentine’s day.. christmas.. etc – there are always numerous poems on these pages pertaining to those subjects. Now, they may be (and often are) beautiful poems containing all the attributes mentioned above, but I sometimes ask myself: Did that poem come from deep down inside the author, to the extent that it simply HAD to be written . . or was it a case of: ‘Oh, it’s easter next week: I’m gonna write an easter-poem for SCP’. If the latter, I sometimes suspect that the poem was written more with a sense of obligation than feeling, and that the author had to ‘look’ for a poem to write; as opposed to a poem being already inside the author, who can feel it strongly, and just has to find a way of getting it on to the page.

        If I may again blow my own trumpet: I like to think that I can generally sense whether a poem is either a/ A sentiment deeply felt by the author which they simply had to convey passionately to others who may share that sentiment.. b/ Written out of a sense of duty (‘I suppose I’d better write a christmas poem’). Not necessarily ‘felt’ by the author, but written just for the sake of christmas, not for the sake of the poem Hence lacking true passion.

        I might not’ve explained myself very well, and I know I’ve dragged this out a bit . . but what I’m trying to say is that I feel your poetry always has that true passion. It comes from the right place; you never have to ‘look’ for the poem, it’s already there . . and I feel that’s important in poetry. And it’s so apparent in your writing that the subjects you write about are subjects that you feel for and care about. Again, passion. That, to me, is what sets your poetry apart from that of many others here . . and that is why you simply MUST banish any future thoughts about “hanging up your sword”. Your poetry’s too valuable to not be written; and to shelve it would be a major crime.. worthy of being tried at the Old Bailey.

  7. Peter Hartley

    Monty – I hadn’t found this comment from you until just now or I certainly would have responded straight away. It tells me that you have even more perspicacity, perspicuity and perceptiveness than I imagined. I was once described by an extremely perceptive ex-girlfriend (who would have denied me all the above qualities) as very Victorian, a term I think she meant in the worst possible sense. But she was right. So Victorian am I that I hesitated for a long time before I used the words “mobile ‘phone” in that poem about Reinigeadal. I don’t have a large following on these pages but it is worth writing poems for the sake of that handful who will read what I write, among whom I number you and JAT as valuable and highly respected supporters who, I am also guardedly aware, will not let me away with mediocrity. I suppose that we have an affinity in the self-imposed and unspoken rules and guidelines that we employ in determining what constitutes poetry, whether we write it, like JAT or me, or we fluently comment on it, like you. At a guess I imagine that if you wrote a poem for the society it would not contain such earthy words as “shit” and “screwing” which are fine in colloquial usage or for not-too-elegant prose, but for me, because they are ugly words, should never find a place in serious poetry which is at its finest when it is uplifting (unless you are Robert Browning and you inadvertently mistake a c*** for part of a nun’s wimple). We’ve already established that neither of us is very fond of archaisms in poetry, childish at best and pretentious at worst, unless your name happens to be S T Coleridge and you decide your next poem will be a rime and not a rhyme. And neither would I, nor you, I’m guessing again, write an entire poem in lower case. A small matter perhaps, but the motives for this kind of aberration can only be iconoclastic – as though a tiny part of a long-term attempt to distance ourselves from and finally dispense with a heritage that goes back in English to Beowulf. Can there be any other point to it? I suddenly find myself, in this paragraphless rant, in the position of Samuel Johnson’s woman preaching, and I also have a vivid picture in my mind of grandmothers oophagously sucking away. It might well behove me to shut up now, get on with my poetastery and leave the literary criticism to you.

    Reply
    • Monty

      There’s a good deal more than a “handful” who read your stuff here, Pete, as has been seen in the past; so don’t ever be fooled if only a handful respond to one of your offerings with a comment. Many more would’ve read it and chose not to comment: for which, I believe, there may be two reasons . . a/ Simple jealousy. At least half of the contributors here will never write poetry in the way you do. Their offerings – with the best of intentions – often appear to be rushed, forced, sloppy, with a preponderance to cut corners, to settle for a near-rhyme when they can’t find a full one, to allow their diction to suffer slightly in order to maintain their meter; to settle for worn-out subject-matters such as Dawn or Spring, instead of conceiving of novel thoughts for themselves. Put simply, they don’t care enough about poetry to treat it with the respect it should always deserve. And when some of these folks see a ‘real’ poem here, a properly-crafted, no-expense-spared immaculate piece of work . . I think they’re sometimes held-back from commenting, ‘coz it’s a sort-of self-admittance that their own stuff is inferior.
      b/ There’s a difference between ‘xenophobia’ and ‘institutionalised xenophobia’. When it’s institutionalised, that means some people are xenophobic without even realising it, it’s that deep-rooted. Thus, given that America is institutionally xenophobic, I feel that sometimes there are some here, only a minority, who’re not urged to make a comment to one whom they know to be a non-American. I’m not saying that this is definitely true, it’s only a hunch.. and I’m not accusing anybody . . I just feel that if you were a ‘local’, your work would attract many more comments.

      You refer to Mr Tweedie as being a constant supporter of yours: I feel the reason for this is . . when he sees (and comments upon) a poem on these pages, he sees only the poem. He takes no notice of the author’s nationality: no notice of their political leanings (if any): no notice of cronyism (is the author one of his ‘chums’ or not): and, vitally, he doesn’t allow his own political persuasion to have any bearing on his evaluation of a poem . . and for those reasons, I consider him, along with Mr Anderson, to be without doubt the two most valued critics at SCP.

      You say that I don’t write poetry: but I do write the odd one now and then. If you can retrieve a recent post on these pages titled ‘The Divine Significance of the Corona Virus’ (12th March), it contains three poems by others, one of which, a Haiku, I responded to with a poetic comment. Also, maybe before you became affiliated with SCP, I won a competition here, which you can find at ‘Rhyming Riddle Competition 2018’: winners announced. I also happen to be working on another piece as we speak, which’ll be on these pages (if accepted) within a fortnight.

      The main reason for my previous reluctance to submit to SCP is . . many poetry competitions (especially in Blighty) state that any entrants must not’ve been previously published elsewhere. That’s not to say that I enter many competitions, but I like to retain the choice of doing so if I wish.

      Anyroad, see if you can find my two aforementioned poems: I’d like to hear your appraisal.

      Reply
  8. Peter Hartley

    Monty – Your latest contribution I haven’t seen yet and I’ll comment on it next time.I had already read your riddle a long time ago, and I suppose it is almost superfluous of me to comment on a piece of work which has already won the accolades this has achieved, but I’ll try. I liked the punning first of all, the misleading words you use to deflect the reader from the answer, like the veiled references to monkeys writing the works of Shakespeare and tattoos getting under your skin, and what people will pay for them to render themselves even more ugly than they were before. It’s a bit like a crossword clue (invented in the USA but brilliantly honed to perfection, occasionally, in the “Listener” crosswords in “The (London) Times”. I too am sometimes disgruntled by poor rhymes and metre because, as you imply, it’s very often sheer laziness or satisfaction with second best that allows such slipshod slapdash work to exist. And I notice this riddle is in flawless tetrameter which, when I try it, tends to run away with me. I’m not exactly sure, on your first line, if I would rhyme “tenure” with “sure” as “ure” in the first word isn’t a stressed syllable, but I’m sure I do it myself when I’m trapped in a corner. I once bought a little book in the British Museum called “A Guide for the Identification of Stranded Turtles on British Coasts”. Now the commonest turtle to strand on the coasts of Britain is, or was, the Kemps Ridley Turtle, which, I believe, has beached itself in British waters about three times in the last millennium. Now what are the chances of your finding a Kemps Ridley Turtle stranded on the shore at Skegness and just happening to have a copy of this book about your person so that you can count its inframarginal scutes and identify it as such? They must be vanishingly slim. After about 40 years I threw the book away in disgust.

    Reply
    • Monty

      Don’t worry about the other poem, Pete. It was only something I hastily knocked-up in response to another person’s poem. But I’ve decided to tidy it up a bit and submit it to Mr Mantyk. So, if he accepts it, you’ll see it on the page soon.

      Reply
      • Peter Hartley

        Monty – When I was attempting to write a little comment on your poetry I found it to be a lot harder than trying to write my own. I don’t know particularly why this should be so -it’s been easy enough, very often, to comment on the offerings of others. It may be something to do with the cross-over from poetry to clue-writing. Riddle-writing in poetic form is neither one thing nor the other. Crosswords were my major diversion before I discovered poetry so you would have thought I would take to the riddle like a fish to the sea. You probably need more imagination than I can muster. Do you remember Lewis Carroll’s famous riddle “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”, a question to which he didn’t furnish a reply.

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