On my mother’s 90th birthday, last Monday, (except it wasn’t because she died six weeks short of it), I was lying awake early in the morning in London listening to a howling wind being chased by driving rain through the hills of Crouch End. Dark windows rattled, pipes creaked and cats screeched and wailed in wheelie bin splashed streets. Storms in London have their own resonance. It must be the bricks, the trees, the wonky paving stones, the curve of the city that conduct the scary magnificence of wind and rain. At the height of the storm, I thought of my mother’s ashes scattered the day before in the square where my brother and I lived as children and wondered if they were now dancing further afield. Yesterday, I had smiled at my son’s wish that we had brought a watering can to bed them down but today, listening to the wind, it didn’t seem such a ridiculous idea.
We had scattered her ashes and then given her a wonderful send off, a group of us saying our goodbyes to her in a French restaurant in Soho. Instead of a funeral, she had bequeathed us lunch. We gathered in an 18th century room, under golden gilt moldings and cornices, sparkling chandeliers, vast mantels hung with age spotted mirrors. Only my brother and I knew everyone. The nineteen friends and strangers ate fine French food, and toasted the life of a woman who was straight forward, honest, and intelligent.
Grief. It has its finer points as well as its abrasive planes. It is many sided. It brings tears of laughter, as well as yelps of woe. Grief is a little like this storm raging outside. Here I am lying, warm, cosy and alive in its midst while it is ravaging around, wreaking havoc (probably with my mother’s ashes) and I have no control over it. It is frightening me yet I feel safe.
Since mum died in late November, I have found my thinking side lined, as if compressed into an inaccessible ball. My vision has been blinkered. My pencil has been blunted. Indeed, now, I feel like I am wrenching these lines out of my gut. They are the endless string of sausages used to illustrate the large intestine in cartoons. But I hope I have closure now. I am still alive and so I must start to write again because just as we were deciding under which bush to sprinkle mum, my phone rang. It was from Ireland. Someone whom I hold dear had just died, out of the blue, unready, too young.
I ended the weekend by going to the reading of poets shortlisted in T. S. Elliot Poetry Prize which was at the Royal Festival Hall. Sitting up in the rafters, waiting for the readings to begin, a memory fluttered forward. I remembered how fifty years ago I had stood on that very stage, staring out at the auditorium. I was in the back row of my school choir. The hall was full of children in school uniforms (mine was grey, royal blue with gold and black tie) and proud parents. I sang (more like bellowed) in this newly opened, controversial development of concrete and glass and I remembered feeling in awe and hugely proud.
The poems in the Royal Festival Hall were a wonderful way to finish my goodbyes. Personally, I hope Tara Bergin, Jacqueline Saphra or Ocean Vuong take first prize, but I loved hearing them all. They released me in a strange way from my own flow of water and let me raft on other people’s rivers for the evening: in Saigon, in the hearts of daughters and sons, in Yorkshire (Ian McMillan was a fine MC) and in the tumbled down world of other people. For me, that is why poetry is magic. It uses language and form to let us into the heart of the matter, the heart of another and there lets us hear the beat of our own.
(thanks to Mandy Berger for the photos)