‘There are no words when your baby dies’: reading this arresting piece on ‘Art from Bereavement’ in Monday’s Irish Times prompted me to revisit a moment from my own life that had me reflect on the way that art, more specifically poetry, can give form and voice to that ‘ever present absence’.
What do we do when words fail us and seem miserably inadequate? When I experienced what is termed a ‘silent miscarriage’ some time ago two particular poems – by, perhaps surprisingly, two male Irish poets – resonated and became lifelines for me in coming to terms with the slippery grief of miscarriage, which is, after all, grief over something that never existed. There is no body to hold, yet what is gone embodied all hope, possibility and had a presence in the world from the moment it was glimpsed on the ultrasound. In both Paul Muldoon’s ‘The Stoic’ (Moy Sand and Gravel, 2002) and Michael Longley’s ‘Miscarriage’ (An Exploded View, 1973) a stricken father labours to make sense of, and put shape on, this indefinable, indecipherable loss.
In Muldoon’s necessarily difficult, tangled poem we find the poet struggling to process the near-unspeakable fact of his wife’s miscarriage as he stands, far from home, under Missouri’s Gateway Arch. Bewildered, he grasps for comparisons, padding the poem with images of disconnection from Irish and American history and mythology.
When I teach Muldoon’s poem in classes on poetic elegy I often play a recording of him reading it from the BBC website. Owing to poor sound quality Muldoon’s reading of his ‘lament for a child who died in utero‘ sounds as faint and as distant as that famous recording of Tennyson reading ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ from another century. To my ear now it remembers too the strain of listening out for the muffled heartbeat of the foetus on a hand-held Doppler – the same sound waves that create the image of the unborn child on the ultrasound, or sonogram (meaning ‘sound picture’) screen. Deeply aware of its own painstaking design ‘The Stoic’ is a poem that draws us to the end of the lines. The really attentive students will notice the arch end-rhyme pattern:
This was more like it, looking up to find a burlapped fawn
half-way across the iced-over canal, an Irish navvy who’d stood there for an age
with his long-tailed shovel or broad griffawn,
whichever foot he dug with showing the bandage
Such circling around his own sorrow makes it all the more powerful when, finally, we stumble into the real heart of the poem: ‘at the thought of our child already lost from view / before it had quite come into range, / I steadied myself under the Gateway Arch’. The poem becomes the ‘arch’ itself, its load-bearing lines holding up the weight of staggering emotion.
Composed of just four unrhymed couplets, Longley’s poem (read it here in its workshop version on the Emory University website) is a sparer articulation, as befits its stark subject. Addressing the miscarried foetus – ‘Unembraceable, indisposable, / My son or my daughter’ – the poem aches to ’embrace’, to put formal substance on, something that is formless, unnameable, that has, inexplicably, slipped off the radar into an unfathomable emptiness: ‘A stunned cabin boy / Steering your ship to the bottom’. It is a haunting, unforgettable image.
All of this reminds me of Angela Leighton’s definition of elegy as a genre that ‘conceives its poetic form as the relief somehow, the shaped remains, of something that has gone’. Both poems are proof that, as the poet Wallace Stevens said, poetry ‘helps us to live our lives’. Never offering the easy consolation of cliché or reducing us to less than we are, poetry enlarges us, moving us to think and feel beyond ourselves. When ordinary words fall flattened of meaning the searching forms of poetry steady us, find the words for us, break into, and bear, the silence.