Death leaves us speechless. I lost my sister-in-law unexpectedly six months ago and in the aftermath my wife, my family, and I barely spoke. Of course, we spent entire days together; it’s just that the words had all gone bad. The only thing that we could say were variations of, “It doesn’t make sense,” “This can’t be real,” or “I can’t believe this really happened.” These sentences were negative statements, taking away as much as they said.
It can be hard to find meaning in death, especially tragic death, because it defies logic. It defies science, and this upsets narrative. We fall into limbo. We have an overbearing need for some thing to ground us, to help us to understand how to keep going, that it is even possible to keep going. The same question circles overhead like a vulture: how could it have ended this way? When grappling for an answer, I get an urge to ascribe something meaningful, some silver lining to death, but the stories that I invent always leave me cold.
Without reason and without storytelling, poetry offers a last-ditch effort to put death into words. At my sister-in-law’s funeral, I read a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke—her favorite poet. Choosing the poem wasn’t easy. My family and I sat around Googling things like “funeral poetry,” and the results weren’t inspiring. The same poems appeared time and again. Combing through poetry collections, we eventually found good poems and then sat down to discuss which one to use.
I wanted to choose a poem that would honor my sister-in-law’s memory and provide some measure of comfort. Death puts everything in question; it puts us face to face with our deepest fears. The fear of being alone—now and forever—and the fear that life is meaningless. Experiencing these fears even for a moment is traumatic. Like touching a live wire. As though our very being enters a light socket. You want to escape immediately because it’s as if the whole house has come off its foundation and caught fire. This is when the urge to be grounded, to find some way to give meaning to life, becomes overwhelming. I believe poetry offers an answer.
I wrote my first poem in response to my grandfather’s passing when I was in fifth grade. Years later, when my great-uncle died, I wrote a poem in his honor and sent it to my great-aunt. I’ll never forget how emotional, perhaps even happy, it made her. I’ve since read and composed poems for weddings and funerals, and though it may sound strange, I’ve found the experiences similar. Weddings and funerals seem to outright demand poetry, and archaeological artifacts dating back to Egyptian hieroglyphs suggest that it’s always been this way.
It’s no coincidence that weddings and funerals are called sacred and that poetry is present at both. Poetry has its own type of meaning, poetic meaning, and at its greatest heights, poetic meaning is invincible. Here is one of my favorite verses by Paul Blackburn:
into this cold room.
The smell of wildflowers is
in every corner.
is filled with flower smell and sun
even when sun is not.*
This verse ends the poem, and for me, it says something absolutely true. Importantly, what it says, viz. the meaning, cannot be explained. Unlike logical or conceptual meaning, poetic meaning is not literal, and accordingly, it cannot be refuted. Through poetic meaning, poetry handles what reason fails to.
Poems ground us because they are meaning-makers, and, in part, they achieve this by operating beyond grammar. Grammar provides guidelines for identifying meaning in language, and without it, poetry presents language without a specific meaning attached to it. At funerals, poems can put the life and death of the deceased as well as our own lives into focus, but they do not tell us what to think or feel. They present words as points to leap from, and they leave the meaning-making to us.
This is why poetry brings solace. Poetry puts the sacred into words that do not sound trite and cannot be refuted. They honor our loved ones and offer the potential to heal ourselves. To explain death, we look toward priests and detectives. Priests, detectives, and poets.
by Mattie John Bamman
pillars rocks and bones
the pillars standing bones
atop marble cliffs
a sanctuary from time large enough
for whispers to drop out
of the wind
prodding the last drops of marrow
from the weeds
extracting one last word
from what remains
to re-place it
in the minds and mouths
of the living
Resigned and Winking
by Mattie John Bamman
Let’s get high and watch the world a while
watch it blend generations like snow and rain
and imagine not a patch of dirt exists that hasn’t been touched
by a man or woman longing to be touched
pushed up against a wall and loved in that swirl of heads
and temporary meaning—
Before you die you must press yourself against the great pine
until you feel the mountains standing for epochs
until you feel
all of the lives to come and all that have passed
Yes with certainty
all of the mountains
and even without it
perhaps even more so
* From the poem, “Banalbufar, A Brazier, Relativity, Cloud Formations & The Kindness & Relentlessness Of Time, All Seen Through A Window While Keeping The Feet Warm At The Same Time As.”
ContributorMattie John Bamman
MATTIE JOHN BAMMAN is a poet, developmental editor, and culinary-travel author in Portland, Oregon.