Carol Ann Duffy: It is the wound in Time

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It is the wound in Time. The century’s tides,
chanting their bitter psalms, cannot heal it.
Not the war to end all wars; death’s birthing place;
the earth nursing its ticking metal eggs, hatching
new carnage. But how could you know, brave
as belief as you boarded the boats, singing?
The end of God in the poisonous, shrapneled air.
Poetry gargling its own blood. We sense it was love
you gave your world for; the town squares silent,
awaiting their cenotaphs. What happened next?
War. And after that? War. And now? War. War.
History might as well be water, chastising this shore;
for we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice.
Your faces drowning in the pages of the sea.

Carol Ann Duffy (1955–), British poet laureate, on the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I.

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"The Wound in Time" by Carol Ann Duffy. Published by the Guardian, 2018. Copyright © Carol Ann Duffy. Reproduced by permission of the author c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN, U.K.

Photos:

New Zealand division marching to take ship to Europe. These men fought, among other battles, at Passchendaele; hundreds of thousands of soldiers, including 2375 New Zealanders, died there. 

The morning after the first battle of Passchendaele.


Golby: Oh man this is going to suck

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My parents are dead and I’m starting to get to the age where my friends’ parents are dying, too, and I feel I should know what to say to them. And I never really do: instances of grief, I have found, are unique, two never coming in the same shape, and they can be piercing and hard-edged and they can be like passing through deep, dark treacle or they can be like a long, slow-passing cloud. There is no one single catch-all solution to dealing with the worst life has to throw at you. 
 
But what I do always say is: oh man, this is going to suck. 
 
...And I say: at one point you are going to become keenly aware that everyone is judging you for the way you outwardly behave when someone close to you dies, and I need to tell you that that is a nonsense. You are going to feel a dirty little feeling of guilt. If there’s a long illness involved, there might be this horrible, metallic-tasting feeling of relief, one too hard and real for you to admit to yourself is there. You will do weird things and behave weirdly and not even know it is happening.
 

Larkin: Most things may never happen: this one will

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I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

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And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Philip Larkin (1922–1985), "Aubade" from Collected Poems (Faber and Faber, 1988/2003, ed. Anthony Thwaite). Copyright © Estate of Philip Larkin. Reprinted by kind permission of Faber and Faber, Ltd.


Mohammed Assaf, age 12, on his mother

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Aleppo, Syria in December 2016
 

The Word Ummī— My Mother

My beloved mother.
When I go to my house, the pain of missing her
Arrives before me.

Mohammed Assaf of Syria, age 12 when he wrote this.
Mohammed lives in England now and his poem is in
England: Poems from a School (2018), edited by Kate Clanchy


Jenny Diski: There are no novel responses possible

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There are no novel responses possible. Absolutely none that I could think of. Responses to the diagnosis; the treatment and its side effects; the development of cancer symptoms; the pain and discomfort; the dying; the death … I am appalled at the thought, suddenly, that someone at some point is going to tell me I am on a journey.

But much as I hate it, the journey – that deeply unsatisfactory, often deceitful metaphor – keeps popping into my head. Like my thoughts about infinity, my thoughts about my cancer are always champing at the bit, dragging me towards a starting line. From ignorance of my condition to diagnosis; the initiation into chemotherapy and then the radiotherapy; from the slap of being told that it’s incurable to a sort of acceptance of the upcoming end. From not knowing, to “knowing”, to “really” knowing; from being alive and making the human assumption that I will be around “in the future”, to coming to terms with a more imminent death. And then death itself. And there is no and. Maybe it’s just too difficult to find a way to avoid giving the experience a beginning and an end…..

The end of the journey doesn’t come until you either die cancer-free of something else, or die of the effects of a regeneration of the cancer cells. Good and bad; from here to eternity, and from eternity to here. But I have been not here before, remember that. By which I mean that I have been here; I have already been at the destination towards which I’m now heading. I have already been absent, non-existent. Beckett and Nabokov know:

I too shall cease and be as when I was not yet, only all over instead of in store.
From an Abandoned Work

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.
Speak, Memory

This thought, this fact, is a genuine comfort, the only one that works, to calm me down when the panic comes. It brings me real solace in the terror of the infinite desert. It doesn’t resolve the question (though, as an atheist I don’t really have one), but it offers me familiarity with “The undiscovered country from whose bourn/ No traveller returns”. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. And it soothes. When I find myself trembling at the prospect of extinction, I can steady myself by thinking of the abyss that I have already experienced. Sometimes I can almost take a kindly, unhurried interest in my own extinction. The not-being that I have already been.

  –Jenny Diski (1947-2016), in the Guardian, 29 April 2016. She died on 28 April.

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Alasdair MacLean: "I like to picture them meeting again"

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Sanna today

[The poet Alasdair Maclean's parents were the last crofters in Sanna, a seacoast hamlet in the west highlands. It is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but it was a hard place to make a living from farming. After many hardships, their life got a bit easier in 1970 when they began to receive an old-age pension from the British government. They died a few months apart, in March and August, 1973.]

"Don't grieve for me," Father had said when he was carried from the house on a stretcher, after his first coronary and before his last one. "I'll be with your mother."

My younger brother had been greatly struck by this anecdote almost in spite of himself. "Do you think there's an after-life?" he asked me now.

I gave the question the serious consideration it deserved. "Who knows?" I said eventually.

"I don't believe it," my brother continued. "Never have done. It's a fairy-story. Yet I like to picture them meeting again. Up there, you know. They've earned that if anybody ever earned it. I like to think of flower-strewn meadows, all that stuff. Father a young man once more, running across the grass. Mother waiting for him. What do you think they would say? How would they greet one another?"

I thought of Mother, her exclamation "My!" when anything impressed her and how much had impressed her despite her unimpressive surroundings. I could not at first get words past the sob in my throat. "O that's easy," I replied when at last I could contort my voice into something resembling normality. "He wouldn't say anything at all. She'd just say, "My! Ian! You weren't long!"

  --Alasdair Maclean (1926-1994) in his reminiscence of his parents and the life of a crofter in Sanna, Night Falls on Ardnamurchan (1984). Sanna is now a tourist destination.


Virginia Woolf: ...when the lights of health go down

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Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul …it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature… literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear.

  --Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) in her essay On Being Ill (1926)