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The Language of Sorrow

The timbre of a laugh, the angle of slippers outside a bathroom door, the spectacles by the bedside — honouring grief is also about remembering life in its luminous personhood

Written by Arundhathi Subramaniam | New Delhi |
June 20, 2021 6:25:54 am
grief, dealing with grief, honouring grief, remembering life, sunday eye, eye 2021, indian express, indian express newsAncestral memory: A break from words can rest grudge and frozenness. (Getty images)

“After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” said poet Emily Dickinson. On May 20, when I heard of the Urdu poet Tarannum Riyaz’s death, I realised there was indeed a strangely formal composure in the chill of aftershock, even as lines from Riyaz’s poem replayed themselves in the mind: “One should keep phoning friends./ If one loses touch… the friend himself may no longer be around.”

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The Hindi poet Manglesh Dabral, who died last December, also had a poem on telephones: This Number Does Not Exist. An ironic symmetry. It helped to think of symmetry in verse, given that there seemed little evidence of it elsewhere. The other line that kept looping back was, unsurprisingly, from Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem: What passing bells for those who die as cattle (1920)?

The problem with grief in these times is its arrhythmia: the randomness, the absence of dignity, ceremony, closure, the isolation that allows for no shared cycles of mourning. Then there’s the volume: scarcely has one cremated one memory, shovelled the earth over one gaping crater, when another appears.

My personal coping strategies have been eclectic, mainly because what works one day simply doesn’t work the next. In a recent poem, I wrote: “Meaning won’t help us (never has)/ but rhythms will”. As I look for new daily strategies for equipoise, I try to keep the faith in rhythms, hoping their mix of inevitability and surprise will offer some anchorage.

My first, utterly unoriginal consolation has been the vegetal world. Something about the green poise of plants, the stoic composure of trees, can remind you that love is not just about the stickiness of human affection, but a vaster, more impersonal knowledge of self. Trees seem to know something that I can wrap my heart around only fleetingly: that separation is a myth; that twig, in some very real way, is forest.

Poems help, too. You read them, I realise, to be haunted. So that they can bleed into your marrow and hum in your veins when you’re under the bedcovers, looking for a reason to climb out. You read poems in the faith that their fevered rhythms of repetition will rescue you when other rhythms fail.

In her Transcendental Etude (1977), the American poet Adrienne Rich writes of the importance of taking off sometimes from “the argument and jargon in a room”. This makes deep sense to me now. When grief is raw, it is easy to reach for readymade language: blame games, morality tales, medieval archetypes of villainy and heroism. Rage — a wonderful source of clarity and courage — can give way to a foaming reactivity, so often mistaken for moral vigilance and political commitment. But a visionary activism emerges from a deeper place of what I think of as “spinefulness” — one that allows for critique without contempt, spirited resistance without hatred.

Honouring one’s grief sometimes means being inarticulate — at least for a time. It entails stammering (The Malayalam poet K Satchidanandan has a memorable anthem to this). It entails turning hoarse. But quiet is not quietism. Grief is not defeatism. To be in a hurry to turn pain into blame is to apply Band-Aid on a festering abscess. Sometimes, one has to fall into that “rift in the Great Nebula”, says Rich, to find “a severer listening”. One lets go of old liturgies, less fluent truths, to arrive at a deeper, less fragmented, more inclusive understanding of self, community and world. And, as one is “cleansed/ of oratory, formulas, choruses, laments…”, one begins to hear one’s own clarity. One’s own voice. One’s own serrated muteness.

And, of course, honouring grief is also about remembering. Nourished though I am by the Buddha’s counsel on impermanence, it helps me to think of those I have lost, in all their blazing singularity — the timbre of a laugh, the angle of slippers outside a bathroom door, the spectacles by the bedside. In that unfinishedness, there is the knife-edge of pain. But there is also the jaunty imprint of personhood. Life in luminous suspended animation. The obstinate “only-this-ness” of human love.

And finally, it helps to take a conscious break from language. The word “meditation” can seem a dauntingly solemn business at times. Call it daydreaming, “sitting around, doing nothing”, or what you will, but a daily non-verbal practice can help lay to rest that ancient muddle of grudge, wounded ancestral memory, frozenness and mistrust that one mistakes for oneself. The break from social media platforms, cellphones, laptops, even conversations, offers a way to walk a path between the high-decibel hum of mass consciousness and the cavernous dark into which all love and meaning seem to vanish. It is a way to recover a flickering sovereignty.

Grief has its own language — of damp, of chill, of shadow. It is not the language of daytime reasoning. Grief is a thing with a soft body and calcareous shell. A mollusc. It takes underwater diving to hear its language. But when you pay it homage, you begin to emerge into an altered daylight — a sunlit emptiness, cautious, but less rigid, willing to be startled, if not seduced, by springtime again.

For the “hour of lead” does not last forever. Even in the glacial numbness of shock, says Dickinson, “Recollect the snow,/ First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go.”

(Arundhathi Subramaniam is a poet and writer. Her new book, Women Who Wear Only Themselves, is out this month)

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