My wonderful son-in-law Peter Cole has a new book of poems called Draw Me After. It’s an unusual combination of his own original poems, including a series of poems about each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and some translations of contemporary Hebrew poetry. My style of reading books of poetry is to savor them slowly, a few poems each day. For me, this kind of reading requires a level of energy and focus that’s hard to sustain for a long time. Yesterday, Rosellen was telling me about an article she had read about the health benefits of brief repeated bursts of exertion, like running quickly up a flight of stairs. That’s the way I read poetry.
In yesterday’s burst, I encountered Peter’s translation of a poem by Leah Goldberg, a renowned Hebrew poet who died at age 59 in 1970. The poem is called Late Fragments. I want to share the first fragment and hope that it will hit you between the eyes as it did me.
In all we do there’s at least an eighth
of a part of death. It isn’t heavy.
What easy, secret grace we bear it with,
wherever we go. Through beautiful waking,
and walks, in lovers’ talk and into
distraction, forgotten deep in our being –
it’s with us always. And isn’t heavy.
Leah Goldberg’s poem comes as close as anything I’ve read to describing the way death is always present in my thoughts – maybe an eighth is a slight underestimate – but it is a presence that doesn’t impede my ability to experience delight and pleasure in the beauty that surrounds me, in the love I feel for my family and friends. In a word, it isn’t heavy.
A friend who is a regular reader of this blog commented recently that I seem to be – perhaps morbidly – preoccupied with death. It’s true that I’ve posted several pieces on the subject but reflecting on how to discuss the subject with my children and grandchildren or musing on how long it’s going to be possible to travel doesn’t mean that I live with a dark cloud hanging over me. I can’t express it any better than Goldberg. Although the pre-ordained ending of the story is written, it doesn’t have to rob you of the pleasures of being alive while you can still experience them. I can’t pretend it’s easy, but I aspire to bear the inevitability “with an easy secret grace.”
My father-in-law of blessed memory claimed, even well into his 80s, that he had never given a thought to death and dying. I would argue that this is not the reflection of a sunny disposition but a pathological act of denial. Only children are granted a dispensation to pretend that the show will never end. Knowing that everything about our lives is temporary deepens our experiences of pleasure and gratitude for what will, all too soon, be taken from us.
My own father was hyper-aware of his imminent death and was terrified by it. For him that awareness was “heavy,” and it robbed him of the ability to fully enjoy the brief moments he was granted.
If you find these musings morbid, Leah Goldberg’s beautiful fragment has been lost on you.
Note: I’m wishing a joyous holiday season to all, however you choose to celebrate it. I’m afraid you’ll have to do without my uplifting words for the next two Mondays, but I hope to be posting again on January 9th. See you then.