Yesterday at work, I went upstairs for a coffee break with that friend and our fellow English major colleague and friend. We talked about the works in the past that meant a lot to us--I never had a Kafka phase, but the other two did. We talked about Eliot, whom I am liking better now that I am older than I did in grad school.
Afterwards, I was ready to make my way through "The Wasteland." I cued up the Alec Guinness, and I decided to follow along. I opened up my ancient Norton anthology, and there, in ghostly handwriting, were notes from when my friend took the Brit Lit survey and borrowed my book, long ago, in the Charleston area where we shared a house so that she could go to school more cheaply and make her VA benefits for schooling stretch. She wrote in pencil, so that I could erase her notes later if I wanted.
She's the friend who died last year of terrible esophageal cancer.
I stopped the Alec Guinness recording and then closed the door so that I could cry a bit—how can she be dead? And then I got a sheet of paper, once I pulled myself together.
I left the door shut, and I wrote, following along with the Norton and Alec Guinness. Some of the lines from Eliot went directly into the poem. Others I changed. Others welled up from hearing the poem.
I thought of Eliot, writing his poem in the aftermath of World War I. I have a memory of Gilbert and Gubar's theory that the loss of his friend in World War I prompted the poem, much the way the loss of Tennyson's friend prompted "In Memoriam." And here I was, writing about/through the same kind of loss.
How strange--I started my work day by realizing that I hadn't written my Thursday poem, the way I try to do each week. And then, Thursday afternoon, I had a poem erupting from me. It was a very rough draft.
At the end of the writing, which came at the end of a crying jag, I felt oddly cleansed--and also transcendent. What an experience—reading/hearing Eliot, feeling that mid-life grief, thinking about how my grad school self knew nothing of grief although she thought she did, knowing that my midlife self also doesn’t know about grief the way that I will.
I left a copy of the pages on my friend's desk. Here's what she wrote back, "You MUST write a Wasteland; the millennium has turned and we need an epic of these times!"
I tend to think of myself as not writing long poems--perhaps it's time to try!