I recently lost a very close relative, in tragic circumstances. Without getting into the details, one of the things that I found hard initially was how to express the loss and the grief, and indeed how to celebrate their life. There is obviously no one way to do this, but poetry is certainly in there. The permanence of the written word and the associated opportunity to ponder and slowly assimilate what’s happened and how best to encapsulate who that person was in life is actually a great relief, I found, and in a way a joy to experience.
Some years ago I attended the funeral of a young man who’d taken his own life. It was a harrowing, if beautifully conducted event. His mother’s parting words to us were “please don’t forget him“. A profound plea, that reflects how quickly we often move on, partly I think to protect ourselves.
In any event, poetry plays its role in such remembrance. It avoids the impermanence of a memory that gets pushed out of our crowded minds, and goes far beyond the intrinsic flippancy of the now routine social media tributes.
My relative had a long affinity with some Marvel characters – don’t be surprised, the now ailing Stan Lee was a gifted storyteller, with a deep understanding of human frailty and human nobility. He had for years loved the Silver Surfer, both as a character and in pretty much all of the multifarious Marvel output that involved the erstwhile Norrin Radd (though much better in print than in the movies). So had I. I think our mutual feelings about the Surfer arose from playing Top Trumps, with the ace card being the one in the picture above (click on it). That little piece of prose is perfectly weighted to express the character, and in some ineffable way, the possibility of life after death**.
It reminded me, sharply, of a few phrases that many people will know, often from a vague memory of Ronald Reagan pitching it perfectly in his speech after the Challenger disaster in 1986. It was written, like so much of his best stuff, by the wondrously gifted Peggy Noonan – still around today. She however was on this occasion merely the messenger. The poetry came from John Gillespie Magee, a Canadian airman who died in 1941, aged 19. His father brought the poem to the public’s attention, and I’m being entirely unoriginal in presenting it here – it’s already extremely well known. Nevertheless, I make no apologies for so doing. It easily transcends cliche and corniness, and keeping that image of the Surfer in mind, it performed the great service of helping to deal with a devastating loss, for which I am truly thankful.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
**…even if, as is the case with me, you already do believe that there is an afterlife. It’s a question every one of us will have asked, and will continue to ask.