June 20, 2012

Reading grief: ‘Sam’s Book,’ by David Ray

A chance encounter recently led me to reconnect with poet David Ray after more than twenty years. I’d known him then for a short time, been a guest in his home when his grief for the loss of his own son, Sam, was still new. (It is a misnomer, I now know, to call a parent’s grief fresh; it is always fresh, will always be so.) My children were young then. He and his wife Judy had only lost Sam three years earlier. How little I understood then. How well now.

David’s amazing elegy for his son, Sam’s Book  (Wesleyan University Press, 1987), has been a great comfort to me and to Heather. The collection includes poems from across a range of styles and periods, from Sam’s infancy through the terrible years immediately following his death. Here David gives voice to experiences and musings that for many who grieve may remain unspoken, unrealized, unformulated in words or images, or may only be shared in desultory conversation or the privacy of unartful journal entries.

He describes the stark realization that new snow has fallen on the distant grave:
                                      … Much farther south we know
              your grave is covered now, who were the song
              and dance of my life.

And the intense sorrow of holidays:

              This year there will be no turkey
              nor will you and your sisters sing that song
              of grace around our table, grace abounding—

We lost Francis at about the same time as the tsunami swept through Japan and the Arab Spring uprisings occurred in Egypt and Turkey. While we had the fortune to mourn with family and friends, and to take time for their visits and to share the gifts they brought, we recognized in the shadow of these events that even such mourning was itself a rare gift. David voiced this recognition in “Bhopal,” which occurred at the time of his loss:

 One thing that’s certain through is this: Third World
 or one beyond, they’re all our children now,
 though borne by millions in brown arms and black,
 and not much mourned by those who think their own
     are wonders, others somehow less.

His “Haiku” series is at once a sprinkling of glass shards and of fine dandelion puffs, giving form and shape to the chaotic experience of grief within the challenging confines of the haiku form. The deceptive simplicity of these poems and their gallery-like grouping ask the reader to linger, as one recognizes how much more is there than the time needed for a first reading suggests.

I must share two:

              When wind blew my hair,
               I felt like my son, smiling
               and happy at last.

   My kiss on his brow—
   Some men would not hug ther sons,
   much less this embrace.

This last struck very close to home for me.

I’ll stop here. There’s much more to say of these poems, which I’ll do in another venue. But for anyone suffering such grief—or for anyone who knows a parent in its throes—Sam’s Book offers comfort, recognition, and community, which will never fill the loss, nothing can, but may give voice to some of the chaos within the hearts of those who grieve.

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