Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Days of Death II: Awake So as to Find Words

4:44 am

I cannot sleep.

The crescent moon has risen, and throws an hour-glass shaped path of light across the bay.  It's bright enough that a few of the islands are illuminated. 

Why am I wakeful?  I feel, somehow, a failure of words.  It's not just a failure in the face of death--though our neighbours' son's suicide, and the impossibility of saying anything meaningful to anyone or about anything in the face of such a yawning gap plays its part in this night.

Suicide is a break in the compact we make with each other to try to survive; it is this compact that keeps us alive.  We all see how the parents have plunged, themselves, into this brokenness.  We say, I don't know how they'll survive it.  And as we speak perhaps we mean that phrase metaphorically or psychically.  But it is also terribly literal, awful in its concreteness--the father speaks nonstop like someone drowning in waves of emotion beyond words--and he is.  The words keep him drawing breath; without them he simply gasps for air. 

I can't stop hearing his cry as he ran upstairs and paced the empty rooms: oh Sonny, Sonny, Sonny, why did you do it?  Anguish so large it spills over, laps around our necks.  I hold my head above it, but just barely.

Every heart knows something about such a cry.  --But not this, not this: the sudden shot to the head.  Who could know that? It's beyond knowing.

Just before he ran off and began sobbing, the father stepped over to me and asked, Is my eye bloodshot?  I feel like my eye is bloodshot.

No, I said.  His eyes were red-rimmed, but not bloodshot.

Well I think it's bloodshot, he said. It just seems bloodshot.

Oh my dear, I said, it's your heart that's bloodshot.  The words just tumbled out of me.  A truth.  Blood shot indeed.  And he ran off, gasping.

I feel badly about that, although I also know he probably barely heard what I said.  The wailing wasn't about what I'd said.  It was that his son was blood.  Shot.  Who knows? Maybe in the eye.  We've assumed it was the head.  Because for us, in part, it is.  Your mind just stops working when you think of such tragedy, such catastrophic collapse.

Words are dangerous.  They always say more (and less) than you think you mean.

Perhaps that's why I've been finding them such hard going of late.  I seem to be able to find a few right ones. A few wrong ones. And then pockets of silence, that's all.  Pictures hum more loudly, echo in my inner (bloodshot) eye.

I think of one of Paul Celan's last poems, "All those sleep shapes" ("Alle die Schlafgestalten") written not so long before he too committed suicide, unable any longer to count up the fragments:

All these sleep shapes, crystalline
that you assumed
in the language shadow,

to those
I lead my blood,

those image lines, them
I'm to harbour
in the slit-arteries
of my cognition--,

my grief, I can see,
is deserting you.

I know we cannot guard others' grief for them, or from them, no matter how wakeful we remain.  My wakefulness this morning will not have meant, I am on watch so another can sleep.  My watch relieves no one; it simply keeps me here, in the compact with other sorrowing souls. All it really can mean is that I, too, rise, dull before grey dawn--to continue, with the rest, as best we can.

 Paul Celan, "All those sleep shapes" ("Alle die Schlafgestalten"). First published posthumously in his final book, Zeitgehoeft (1976). In English in Poems of Paul Celan. Trans. Michael Hamburger. New York: Persea Books, 1988, pp. 336-7. 

In fact, however, I've quoted this fragment of Celan from American poet, Claudia Rankine's meditation on death, depression, loss, family, sleeplessness and hollowness of contemporary American life in Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2004, p. 61.


  1. What sorrow , what breaking hearts.
    A depth so deep I only, have glimpsed.
    The hole cannot be filled...ever.
    The hole will never close, it will grow a crust, but always be translucent as the feeling on the faces of those that loved.

  2. Words are difficult and inadequate so often. Your presence and love show caring which crosses the gaps of words. I remember you quiet presence beside me at Grandpa's funeral and how comforting it was. Thank you, Karin.