One of the survivals of Hellenic civilization is grave steles. A mother and daughter hold hands, eyes apart, looking at daylight and the night. Words are carved: how wonderful you were, my daughter. Anne Carson’s The Economy of the Lost revives and traces the brief poems of Simonides, known otherwise for his advice to tyrants. He was the first one paid and even famously stingy – he kept some money, unlike Socrates – to inscribe the brief words of a poem on a stele. These poems have the intensity and dark magic of mortality. What was here, in all its vigor and love, is gone, except in its furious imprint in us. As we age, we carry the magic of daily survival, the intensity of nature, the beauties of this world, of blossoms and of love, and the intensity of loss, with us. Each day is an exchange of worlds.
No one has as uncanny a sense of the pain and shock of this traffic as Celia Gilbert, whose book of poems, Something to Exchange (Blazevox, 2009) captures “death’s democracy” as she puts it speaking of her father, or in “Naked Seed” sharing with him a gymnosperm – in the Greek - a pine cone,
now that I find you in everything
now that you are nowhere.*
. In one etched poem – only Simonides’ words at his work were scarcer but not more measured – she speaks of Giotto’s painting of the death of St. Francis. These are monks, devoted to animals, living simple and quiet lives, having meditated, much more than even doctors, on mortaliity. But mortality is not yet theirs, not even of the one who made life radiant for them. And it is quick, linking her experience to theirs:
I understand this moment –
this passage from breath to nothing –
stuns them as it did me
when I saw you carried out
knees strapped to chest
“Goodbye” too late.
But Celia experiences this moment with a great simplicity, a mother’s and daughter’s grief, in a way one can hear further, even to the dark blossoming still fragrant on the air here, of death and a kind of life in death with those of us who remain:
How sweet the faces of the monks
They have lost their shepherd,
and later painters will be too worldly
to catch the simplicity of loss:
the gaze that reveals they had heard of spring
all their lives, but only now
come upon a blossom.
The epigraph is from John Donne: “Poor Intricated Soule! Perplexed Labyrinthical Soul.” Labyrinths are, in the ancient world, homes for the dead (most in Knossus, where death is currently least grasped, see here). Her words are up to Donne. The first poem “Coming Back” speaks indirectly of the loss of a daughter:
Walking down a country road
I see it, the flat, boldly-striped petals
of the climatis wrapped
around its friend the tree.
Nights you come, in the second
between closing the book and turning off the light,
or at 4 a.m outside the window
riding the ivy
Intense, energetic , so young,
so fully created - a fragrance
all at once – no interval
between you and existence.
“Her Voice,” a beautiful , extraordinarily painful series of songs about her mother, a woman who came across to her almost as an angel – named by her own mother this, a poem embroidering the words from her mother’s childhood, “angelic” as opposed to her moody sister Jean and wild brother Charlie (she names them). But now her mother is failing, has forgotten or is unsatisfied with her, cannot call up her own words. In “You are my Daughter?,” the poet’s words are calm but implacable in conveying terror:
This disappointed face
Seems to say you’re not what I wanted, not what I meant
Now I am a memory and you are a memory too.
Perhaps the deepest relief or making peace here is the epigraph from Basho, translated by Robert Bly:
The temple bell stops-
But the sound keeps coming
Out of the flowers.
This image is these poems.
In “Morning Glories on the Day of Atonement,” she speaks, again of her childhood, of being a jew who comes from a family, in a way like mine (the grandparents on both sides of mine had departed, Jewish practices were more distant):
Tradition had been lived and left by my parents
for my brothers and me, nothing
but the knowledge we were Jews
and a feeling of unease when we counted,
on this holiday, the empty seats
around us at school.
We were different again
from those who are different.
I will invoke these last two lines at my youngest son’s Sage’s bar mitzvah in three weeks. He chose this and so chose to place me, in an interesting way in it, as I have found some words of the prophets to name the humanity of the Palestinians. As Aristotle says, we are not complete without our children, focused in and beyond this life.
Marx wrote of commodity fetishism and the falseness of exchange when it departs from and traduces use. Celia traces the livingness of exchange for her grandfather, a peddlar in the West with few words in English, trying and making a new home in America:
Loneliness stretches its arms to a stranger
even the Jew can be offered a drink from the well.
at kitchen doors buxom women
watched as you walked up
Mister, what have you got?
And she has two political/personal poems, two collages which capture the distance of these exchanges. One is a long poem of the holocaust in Lodz, “July 20, 1944,” perhaps the best poem I have ever read about it. It sees those, full of pity for themselves like the Nazi death-accountant, seeking only exchange, who have nothing to exchange. But we jews (and others) have the morning glories of rags:
Received in the ghetto by the end of May 1942:
Clothing and rags, 798,625 kilos,
Feathers, eiderdown and pillows, 221,035 kilos.
Let nothing of the Jew be wasted.
these old clothes men
who called under the windows
“Cash for rags. Any old rags? Bring out your rags.”
In “Family,” she writes of Kathy Boudin, her cousin, who was caught up in the Weathermen, committed a great crime and served for many years to atone for the horror. Celia employs the dictionary definitions for remorse, redemption, Kathy’s working in the prison with women with Aids or teaching them to read. I have met her again since (Celia introduced us at a party). Starting in prison, she has now earned, at 60. a doctorate in education. She has come up again from the voyage to the underworld, not young any more, with something to give. Celia’s own words are those, unusually, of a prose poem:
"Over time my anger at your illusions fades. We talk on the phone. The death of parents draws us closer. I visit in the beige waiting room, behind the glittering hoops of wire. We make an island in this sad space of food vending machines and starched guards, where silent lovers are clasping hands, staring, and little children climb on their mothers."
She has written fierce, almost unbearably honest poems about the strange not complete connections or disconnections in what nearness we achieve with those we love. Of a son who had learned to conceal himself from her, she writes in “Afterimage”:
Just in time
I remember to say nothing.
There’s nothing now I can do.
I recall sitting on his bed
When he was ten.
He asked me almost every night,
“Do you love me?”
What the failure then was
I never knew.
A failure of exchange or of the intention to exchange. Perhaps we all do, to some extent, what her son did to unfold the not yet and murky independence each of us must unfold. Perhaps at other times or in the last things or in near goodbyes, sometimes we see each other, can call what is important into speech.
Celia has also been “In Katmandu.” I, too, was there once with my father when I was 16; he tried to bargain with the Panchen Lama over a charm stick while women sold their charms on the streets near the Temple at the top of the hill and the homeless begged. Since then, I have learned something from the Tibetans. But the poet’s sense of the afterlife is not at that moment, similar to that of the lamas, talking you through death, keep awake, to journey to a new life. Her sense is more like the Hellenes, more linked, as we are going, to the here and now, the hands still touching:
I don’t want a new life. I’m not ready
to shed the disappointments and longings
of this one For every particle trying to let go
there’s another hanging on to grief.
In “The Market Place” Celia is in the agora in Athens. She sees the Greeks who came
some with goods, some with ideas
like you, Father?
Izzy (I.F. Stone) wore a hearing aid, as I remember from many visits to her living room (Celia is my sister-in-law) and to hearing him speak at Harvard noble words on the State Department’s “White Paper” (as full of lies as Cheney) on Vietnam:
In the flea-market at Plaka
an elderly man sold carved birds,
his old-fashioned hearing aid.
with flesh-colored wire,
conjured you up for me that night
Her father took her for walks and chatted with a homeless man before giving him change. Here again, as if in the realm of the grail, an exchange arises between worlds. He also wrote a last book on Socrates:
The next day I bought an owl
from the old man,
wanting to touch his veined hand
knowing he would soon go down,
unacknowledged to abide
in death’s democracy with you, Father,
both of you among the fortunate
with something to exchange.
In the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, the steles are the most intense gifts of the Hellenes, overpoweringly with us to anyone who walks in front of them, to this moment in time. The words of Simonides, carved into steles, seeing magically, unmercifully into each person’s mortality and into his own, live. So will these.