Sunday, January 17, 2021

LIFE-SAVING POETRY

I had a little over 6 months to prepare for my beloved husband's death. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer just after Easter, and the oncologist told us that only 5% of people with this cancer survived even 6 months.  He lived just a little past 6 months, and during all that time I was in despair, wondering how I could ever go on living without him. After he died, I felt as if I had experienced a major earthquake, flood, and wildfire all at once. I was alternately numb and pierced by grief, aware that the landscape of my life had changed and would never be what it had been again.  Becoming a widow was terrifying. Most of my friends were couples and priests I had known through our work in World Wide Marriage Encounter, and the work had vanished with Wes so that I felt even more isolated and alone.  I no longer had the best friend I'd had since I was 17 and he was 16, nor the mission and purpose we'd had for the past 30 years.

Being a poet, I began to pour out my sorrow and desolation into new poems that were darker and went deeper than anything I'd ever written before. More of my poems were accepted for publication, and the editor of the journal that had accepted more of my poetry than any other told me that these poems resonated with many of her readers. One morning several years later, I realized that I had written a poem about our son that had no shadow of my husband's death lying over it; it was a poem of sheer gratitude for remembered snapshots of moments spent with him at the Wild Animal Park over many years.

That poem inspired me to begin the chapbook that is now almost finished, called "Portal of Light," which has engaged me for over two years, has required that I walk back down into the valley of the shadow of my husband's death, and laboriously climb back up again, having gained an appreciation for all that I have not lost, as well as all that I have been given since he died.  In many ways my poetry has brought me back to life, not the life I wanted, but the life I have been called to live.

I learned in the selection from Plutarch on Nicias that we read in our book club recently that poetry can be life-saving in other ways.  After the Athenians under the leadership of Nicias lost a disastrous battle to the Syracusans in Sicily, Plutarch notes, "Some of the Athenians were also saved thanks to Euripides. Apparently the Greeks in Sicily were keener on his poetry than any other nonmainland Greeks, and longed to hear it. They would learn by heart the occasional small specimens and samples that reached the island through visitors and one of their great pleasures was to share them with one another. Anyway, the story goes that at the time in question many of the survivors who made it back home greeted Euripides warmly when they met him, and told him either that they had been released from slavery for having taught their owners all they could remember of his verses, or, in some cases, that when they were wandering about after the battle they were given food and water for singing some of his songs." Plutarch commented, "If this is true, there is no need to doubt another story." He wrote that "Some Caunians were once trying to bring their ship into the harbor to escape some pirate vessels. At first the Syracusans refused to let them in, and actually prevented them from entering. Later, however, they asked whether the Caunians knew any of Euripides' songs. The Caunians said they did, and then the Syracusans let them in and helped them beach their ship." Thus, the verse of the author of Medea and Helen of Troy and another 16 or so tragedies extant today even rescued sailors from pirates!

Many times, as I struggled to keep from drowning in grief, I clung not only to the creation of my own poetry but to a verse or a stanza from another poet, as to a mast left adrift from a sinking ship, and rode it until I could find a harbor. It was never the harbor I was hoping for, but it was a harbor, and those times at anchor gave me strength to set sail again.

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