A father left bereft
POETRY: Next to NothingBy Chris Agee,Salt Publishing, 113pp. £12.99
NEXT TO love, grief is the great enabler of poems. In many ways grief is more powerful than love, whether in fiction or poetry. Love, especially if it is a happy collaboration between adults, excludes us from its golden circle even as readers, whereas grief, with its sense of crisis and abandonment, ignites our sense of humanity and calls us to become a part of its urgent business. In this, his latest collection of poems, the American born, Belfast-based poet, Chris Agee, has created a compelling, grief-stricken narrative. Death has become his ghostly collaborator, overwhelming in its agency and effect, darkening the poet’s language and hoisting his talent upon an aesthetic gurney where it is tested, prodded and dismembered. Skewered by grief, there is little the poet can do to help himself:
The memorial stellata of another, like the
great bloom of time –
Petals fallen into moments, sudden freshet
The mahogany spreads of Shamrock
Compost – was planted
A year to the noon of her death’s end to all
moods and tenses.
( The Tulip Tree)
NEXT TO NOTHING chronicles the year after the death of his four-year-old daughter, Miriam Aoife in a series of episodic, technically perfect and pitch-reticent lyrics. For this poet, grief crashes upon the shore of language in three distinct technical waves; a series of brilliant couplets, a series of minimalist, impressionistic lyrics and a series of more discursive, muscular stanzas. The whole enterprise adds up to something beyond lyric poems. In Readinghe says “the Obituaries/I look always/for/the great/ achievement/of children”. That sense of a parent bereft does permeate the book and creates a work that breaks through barriers of literature to become something more, a palliative journal, a chronicle of the heroism of lost parenthood, a handbook for the bereaved. The bereaved father writes “Your face/swims/in the window/where I wave/at the childminder’s/new child” and, again, he writes “According/to Amichai/God is/change/and Death/is His/prophet.”
In A Grief Observed, another Belfast writer, CS Lewis, observed that “part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection”, meaning that you don’t only suffer but live each day thinking about suffering each day. Such a compounding of grief does create a crescendo within poems, an intensity of feeling where words are compressed in a search for the one correct description of grief, an intense, lyrical-spiritual experience that was well described by the Waterford poet Sean Dunne in his introduction to Something Understood: “spiritual experience is wordless and, at the very most (as far as the medieval writer of The Cloud of Unknowingtells us) may need no more than a single word to express its own depth.” Agee’s grief-journey is the intense search for that one ample word in “the impossible loneliness of grief”. That word may simply be his daughter’s name:
Miriam goes out
before we’re up
( A Dream)
AS HE TRAVELSthe world, changing landscapes from New Hampshire to Dromore to Croatia, Agee carries that second passenger, grief, with him. From christenings to poetry readings, from a hammock in Bosnia to a music-box in Sarajevo with its thoughts of “parents’ love, papier-machepuppets, evergreen boughs” Agee weighs the world against the intensity of this grief, and the world is found to be wanting. Nothing is worse than the easy consolations of others, those well-meaning but cheaply bought assurances from friends that somehow a catastrophic loss might be “positive”, might be a sign of divine favour, as one correspondent daftly proposes:
Once again, I hardly know
What to make of such an extraordinary
Which reminds me, like all the rest, of the
Barnacled to the great right whale of
Touching it has no idea what osmosis.
( Next to Nothing)
What the poet knows is that a father’s loss can only be felt by the bereft father and “That is all”.
It is due to the skill of the poet that one feels at one with the grief in these poems; but the theme and structure of this book, as well as the humanity within, will ensure that Next to Nothingbreaks the boundaries of mere literary work. Here, Chris Agee the poet has moved beyond the realm of poetry to embrace a wider audience. I am certain that this journal of grief observed and grief considered will be read and re-read by anyone who has ever lost a child. Only a poet who had lost an angel, the angel Miriam, could come back to us from “the dark land of eternal light”.
The Last Geraldine Officer
Poetry Ireland in association with Salt Publishing will hold a launch for Next to Nothing, with an introduction by John F Deane and a reading by Chris Agee , at 6.30pm on Thursday, April 16, in the Unitarian Church, 112 St Stephen’s Green West, Dublin 2