Grieving after 2020

January 03, 2021

Yes, there are crazy things happening on the political scene, but I have nothing very distinctive to say on that.  But on other things, maybe I do; or maybe I just have other points of view to remind you of where we are.

2020 was quite a year, and I shared this poem with a friend earlier this fall, and I decided late last month that I might share it more broadly, in case it might help others.  It has always helped me.

It's by Thom Gunn, from his wondrous book THE MAN WITH NIGHT SWEATS (1992), a book in part about existing as a gay man in the 1980s during the HIV/AIDS era, and the withering way that plague worked its way through his friends and loved ones.  The book manages to be (imho) truthful and savage and beautiful all at once, and this poem, which ends the book, confronts grief and what happens to grief over time and how in some way we must grieve our grief itself, mourn our mourning, and this is a truth we come to see for various reasons and by various causes, in this case a little child.

Gunn is a beautiful writer, subtle and austere and surprisingly formal, and if lines don't initially make sense read them again, if they still don't make sense, read on, come back to them later, but as ever, try to bear with it till the end.

A Blank
The year of griefs being through, they had to merge
In one last grief, with one last property:
To view itself like loosened cloud lose edge,
And pull apart, and leave a voided sky.
Watching Victorian porches through the glass,
From the 6 bus, I caught sight of a friend
Stopped on a corner-kerb to let us pass,
A four-year-old blond child tugging his hand,
Which he held against with a slight smile.
I knew the smile from certain passages
Two years ago, thus did not know him well,
Since they took place in my bedroom and his.
A sturdy-looking admirable young man.
He said, 'I chose to do this with my life.'
Casually met he said it of the plan
He undertook without a friend or wife.
Now visibly tugged upon by his decision,
Wayward and eager. So this was his son!
What I admired about his self-permission
Was that he turned from nothing he had done,
Or was, or had been, even while he transposed
The expectations he took out at dark
— Of Eros playing, features undisclosed —
Into another pitch, where he might work
With the same melody, and opted so
To educate, permit, guide, feed, keep warm,
And love a child to be adopted, though
The child was still a blank then on a form.
The blank was flesh now, running on its nerve,
This fair-topped organism dense with charm,
Its braided muscle grabbing what would serve,
His countering pull, his own devoted arm.

--Thom Gunn  (from The Man With Night Sweats, 1992)