Today’s post is part of observing three anniversaries this week: this blog’s launch six years ago, Atomic Bomb Day (noting the anniversaries of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and my late wife’s death in 2001. An odd combination? Well, yes, but they coincide.
Odd? Personal loss has an odd size. If one holds one’s hand in front of one’s eyes it can block out the entire sun. How close grief is to one, has a similar effect. When the 9/11 plane crash attacks occurred a month after my wife’s death, it was objectively a sad, horrible, thing. To some small and nearby degree it impacted the place I worked. There were employees traveling, in the air as the attacks became known. We had at that time a floor of offices in a tall local building in St. Paul, over a thousand miles away from the attacks, but a tower named at that moment ominously “The World Trade Center.” And the radio network I worked for had a large news component. Everyone and I did what we needed to do in the wake of the attacks. It was not that I did not care or have consideration then — but the sharp pain of that public grief could not be felt to the same degree in my self still encased in loss.
So too the atomic bomb attacks on the two Japanese cities must have been in 1945 to many Americans. Some had lost loved ones in that war, some feared for losses to come. Some were waiting for what, how many, conventional deaths before the war’s end, and wondering if one of them would be their own.
Those nearby close things can blot out an atomic bomb. Ethical philosophers try to make true weights and perspectives, poets on the other hand talk instead of how it feels to think of these things.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an American poet whose importance is now obscured by judgements of excessive conventionality against the bright lights of Dickinson and Whitman’s new approaches, wrote the poem which I’ll perform in part today. Written and published in 1864 during the American Civil War, it’s author certainly knew of the generalized grief and loss of that war and the human slavery it was fought over* — but he also had closer griefs. His wife had not only died in 1861, she died in his arms, her body on fire from a household accident as he himself was burn-scarred trying to extinguish the blaze. And then his teenaged son was serving in the Civil War and was grievously wounded in 1863.
Three anniversaries remembered. There’s no way to picture this blog in a single picture, so we’ll show Longfellow.
The opening section** of “Palingenesis” considers memories and grief, considers the imperfection of the rebirth that the obscure word used as the poem’s title offers. If the eternal noises of the sea and ghostly apparitions in the mist may strike us as all-too-tired poetic tropes to our 21st century judgement, the image at the end of the segment I perform, the ashes from which some fabled alchemist might be able to reconstruct a burnt rose still has power for me. This “rebirth” without scent, and without the ability to change and bloom, is not a true rebirth, it does not repair the loss.
My life path after my wife’s death is a complicated story including joy and gratitude. Are those considerable things big enough to obscure the loss — in reverse, a planet bigger than a hand? I cannot honestly weigh that, other than to live in the scent of life and to bloom. Starting this project, even if over a decade after my wife’s death, was one way to return to poetry what my young poet-wife would have given.
I have at least one other planned part to this anniversary post, one other musical performance that doesn’t yet exist. I don’t know if I’ll be able to find time to do that, but this part that I did complete is available below. You can play the performance with the graphical gadget below where you see it — and where you don’t, you can use this highlighted link.
*A close friend, a U. S. Senator, was beaten unconscious and seriously injured on the floor of the Capitol over an anti-slavery speech which was deemed insulting for inferring the same crimes of sexual slavery Longfellow wrote about in a poem.
**The rest of Longfellow’s “Palingenesis” concludes with the realization that a forward-looking new birth, not an attempt at exact repair and reincarnation, is the better answer. Not only would the entire poem produce a piece longer than I prefer to present here, I think the poem’s older poetic language might wear down many current listener’s interest. Here’s a link to the complete version.