Progress and Stasis in Mourning

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I was overjoyed about the inauguration of our 44th President on Tuesday, but couldn’t help feeling a little sad, too. People like to say that time heals all wounds. I don’t believe that, not least because one of the things that is hardest for me is seeing how time is moving me away from my mother. Every day she is farther from me, and while it’s nice to not have the grief be so raw, it’s more than a little horrifying to think that we’re almost five months away from her death now.eema_fountain.jpg

Yesterday on the way to work I was reading Pablo Neruda’s Captain’s Verses on the subway (note: reading Neruda on the subway is a great way to get picked up by emo Hispanic guys, in case you were wondering) and came across a poem that I’d read many times before, and never liked. The poem is called The Dead Woman (La Muerta) and is basically a promise from a man that he will go on living when his lover dies, even though he will be in deepest despair.

In the past, when I read it, it felt distinctly unsexy. I usually pick up Neruda because I want to read something sensual and stark, and this poem never felt that way to me. It was kind of depressing. A downer. Not what I look for in Neruda.

And then yesterday I read the poem differently for the first time. It wasn’t about a lover dying so much as a mission towards good that continues despite generations of despair. In the middle of the poem, Neruda writes:
I do not dare,
I do not dare to write it,
if you die.
I shall live on.

For where a man has no voice,
there, my voice.

Where blacks are beaten,
I cannot be dead.
When my brothers go to prison
I shall go with them.
When victory,
not my victory,
but the great victory comes,
even though I am mute I must speak;
I shall see it come even
though I am blind.

It’s a poem about civil rights. I don’t think I ever saw that before, though I knew Neruda was an activist, in my mind he was all passion and tenderness. But here he is in a poem saying that even when he is grieving for someone he loves he feels obligated to continue the journey towards justice.

My mother was many things, but to say she was a civil rights activist would be overstating things to a considerable decree. She never charged me with making sure equal rights are finally achieved in this country, but she did believe, passionately, in helping those who need help, and many many times she encouraged me and all kinds of people in her life to work for the things we believe in. While listening to the inaugural address I thought a lot about how much she would have been nodding (and let’s face it, weeping) had she been listening. It made her seem both very far away, and very close.

There’s a lot written about why the Kaddish doesn’t actually mention the dead at all, but it struck me today that perhaps Neruda nailed it in the final stanza of his poem:

No, forgive me.
If you no longer live,
if you, beloved, my love,
if you have died,
all the leaves will fall in my breast,
it will rain on my soul night and day,
the snow will burn my heart,
I shall walk with frost and fire and death and snow,
my feet will want to walk to where you are sleeping, but
I shall stay alive,
because above all things
you wanted me indomitable,
and, my love, because you know that I am not only a man
but all mankind.

When people we love die we want to lie down and never go on. But there is still so much work to do. Just as in the Kaddish we say of God, “veYamlich Malchutei b’chaychon u’veyomechon” ‘his sovereignty should be accepted soon and in our days,’ well that has to be followed up with actions. We have to do something to make that happen. In the face of loss, we need to progress.

Posted on January 22, 2009

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