The Sun Shone
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, c.1558
If my love for poetry could be said to have begun in childhood wonder, in the afternoons spent with my father, in the excitement of early school days, my need for poetry, my faith in it, began with a single poem—or, more precisely, a singular experience and the intervention of poetry.
It was June of my freshman year in college, in the middle of final exam week, when I received an early-morning call. My mother had been killed, gunned down in a parking lot by her second husband—her then ex-husband—a troubled Vietnam veteran with a history of mental illness. Grief set in quickly. I must have been in shock. I can remember riding in the back of a police car on the way home to Atlanta. Every fifteen minutes or so the officer would pull over to use a pay phone to, as he put it, “check for updates.” I kept thinking that he would return to the car to tell me that it had all been a mistake—that either my mother was only injured, not dead, or that they had identified the wrong woman altogether.
At the police station, they put me in a room by myself. There were no windows, only a conference table and a few chairs. On the table was my mother’s briefcase. Though I sat there for hours waiting for my father to arrive, I never touched the briefcase to see what it held inside, what remnant of my mother’s life I might find there. Like that oxblood leather case with its dull combination lock, my mother was now closed to me. It was another education in metaphor. Looking back, I can see how the figurative values of things were there and are, in fact, everywhere. I can see now that in most of the informal photographs in which I appear with my mother, or with both my parents, she is never looking out toward the camera. In one, the three of us in tight focus, my father holds me, the hat from his baseball uniform on my head. It is summer. I am between them, and my mother is looking down at me, smiling—a look of anticipation on her face—while my father looks straight ahead, meeting the gaze I will bring each time I take out the photograph to look. His gesture, it seems to me now, suggests of the possibility of speaking across time, the distances, as poetry does. My mother, in her watchful and loving gaze toward my childhood self, has turned away from a future she will never enter.
I do not recall the moment during those first six months after my mother’s death that I turned to poetry—an attempt to put in elegant language what I was feeling, to make sense of it. I know only that I could think of no other place but a poem that the pain of my loss might find its just articulation. So I tried writing one for the first time since those heady days of elementary school because something catastrophic had happened. It was an awful poem, but I had needed to do it. Then, in a college English class, I read W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts:”
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
I was immediately taken by those first lines: “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters …” It was as if the poem were speaking directly to me, and I was ready, almost daring it to prove something it knew in the abstract about suffering that I now understood intimately. “About suffering”—those first two words of the phrase were arresting not only in their proposed subject matter, but also in the syntax, an inversion that places the emphasis not on “the old masters” as the noun of the sentence, but on the knowledge of what it means to suffer.