Noman’s Land Common (Film-Poem Online)

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<a href="https://vimeo.com/152471055"><img src="https://i.vimeocdn.com/video/552486948.webp"/><br />Click to watch</a>

Noman’s Land Common

A shadow passes over the meadow, effortless
in its cooling presence, a wake
of songbirds, for a moment stilled,
for a moment passed over
by a presence like night, a shoal of fish
beneath the barnacled hull,
tender in covering, blanket-soft,
the lids pulled over
our welling eyes, to shed a drop
in the pool of soft grasses,
which ripple, concentric,
in an unseen wind that blows
all things, together, onward, all things,
eventually into crossing,
into parting, into the covering-over
of life with — not death, exactly — 
but the other side, the other life
in which cloud, meadow, fish, ship
reveal their true names to us — 
flashes-through-sunlight, dark
moisture, ink of relentless progression.
A brush dipped
in clear water, the pigment’s smoke,
a cipher of leaves in the swirled cup.
The Hawthorn renounces her wedding vows.
Slow raptors finger the dryness of heat.
Nameless, in the new world, a congregation
of petals, root, trunk, and branches,
new leaves, in the unnamed world,
hold out their yellow hands to the rain.
A voice cries out
in a language you recognise, and the cloud — 
for that is what it is, just a cloud,
retreats in spinal curvature over the hill,
which is grass, then soil, then stone,
a foetus in the centre, its open hand
a gesture of greeting, of saying “goodbye” — 
and now you are on your knees, in a field,
jet-lagged, on a Wednesday, remembering
your name, a gift from your mother,
as the multiplication tables arrange
themselves before you, pieces for chess,
a calendar full of meetings in which
you can never say: for a moment, I was
that shadow, say, listen, I have been
to the other side of life, and a child
rests in the womb of the earth,
but instead stare-down at your ink-stained
hands, and nod, and arrange your broken
face into the gesture of listening.

Process Notes

With the tenth anniversary of the birth and death of our son James fast approaching, I find myself writing about the ongoing effects, including sudden and overpowering moments of grief. The text came first. I then shot time-lapse of clouds through an inexpensive toy kaleidoscope using a Raspberry Pi camera. I also shot real-time nature footage through the same kaleidoscope by holding it up to my smartphone camera. Valerie composed and performed the music. The title refers to a nearby patch of common land in North Hertfordshire that we frequent. One year, after extensive tilling, a field adjacent to the common erupted in red poppies, not unlike the no-man’s land of the First World War.

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Transatlantic Elegies: Dunn and Hall

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Donald Hall’s keen observations on grief in Without had a profound impact on my understanding of the possibilities of elegiac poems. Since relocating to London, Douglas Dunn’s slim volume Elegies has deepened my understanding of the form, and some of its specific cultural implications. Both collections were written in the wake of the poet’s wife’s death from cancer. And each, in its way, is a remarkable achievement of transcending loss to make art. But here the similarities end, and certain differences — ones I find illustrative of the subtle divide in Anglo-American poetics — begin.

Whereas Hall’s poems are largely confessional, Dunn’s might be called archaeological. Taking the first poems from each book as examples, we find in “Her Long Illness” an account in the third-person that is none-the-less told in scene, revealing intimate details of the couple’s final moments together. By contrast, Dunn’s “Re-Reading Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss and Other Stories” takes us through an examination of the stains on a book’s pages, invokes Robert Frost’s “A Considerable Speck” in addressing a fly, and only obliquely touches on the matter of grief itself in the final words of the poem: “one dry tear punctuating ‘Bliss’.”

Some of this stems from the vantage point taken up by the speaker — whereas Hall is re-living experience, going back to the hospital scenes in his mind, Dunn is reflecting, rooted in the present, casting forward and back. How each poet chooses to reflect or relive, however, and the effect this produces in the poems, brings colour to certain value differences between the two poetics.
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The Blessings of Complicated Grief

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“No motion has she now, no force; / She neither hears nor sees; / Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course, / With rocks, and stones, and trees.”

-William Wordsworth, “Lucy”

Yesterday marked the anniversary of the birth and death of a poet-friend’s son. Today we finished packing baby items originally bought for our own son, James, to pass along to our nephew-to-be in Australia. No life is simple. But while most Americans are firing up their grills or caravanning to the beach to enjoy the easy pleasures of a three-day weekend, I find myself sifting through a tangle of thoughts and feelings that seem, well, complex.

The clinical term for a sometimes-debilitating sadness that persists long after the moment of loss is “complicated grief.” The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide online says that “the disorder is more likely to occur after a death that is traumatic — premature, sudden, violent, or unexpected,” and the Mayo Clinic website cites “risk factors” such as “being unprepared for the death,” and “in the case of a child’s death, the number of remaining children.”

Loss is never simple. However, if I were to try to define a corollary to this condition, called “simple grief,” an illustrative example would be the death of a grandparent who had been sick for some time, and who had lived a long and happy life. Such a loss fits the framework of most cultural beliefs about the natural and acceptable cycles of life and death. The death of a child, or suicide of a loved one, however, do not.

And so, the complication, for me, became existential. Without the agreed-upon societal mythos about life and death to guide me toward resolution, I have had to come to terms with, and make meaning from, this experience anew. A lifetime of spiritual studies taught me that any situation, no matter how intense, could be used to learn and grow. Losing our son, and not being able to have another child, tested this belief intensely.
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