Week 474: For A Child Born Dead, by Elizabeth Jennings

This one has mixed associations for me. Our firstborn came into the world over fifty years ago now, but in many ways it seems like yesterday. My wife’s contractions started soon after midnight, and having had a tricky pregnancy she was whisked off to hospital by ambulance while I followed after. On arrival she was directed to a ward and I to some sort of fathers’ room, where I spent a rather uncomfortable night trying to sleep on a couple of plastic chairs. (My wife wishes to point out that her own night was also not entirely without discomfort). In the course of this I chummed up with another young first-time father.

In the morning my wife was moved to a delivery room and I sat with her through a long hot June morning until around half-past two in the afternoon we were gifted with the never to be taken for granted miracle of a lusty new life coming into the world. I left the room walking on air after holding my firstborn son, and bumping into my friend of the night before told him all about it, remembering at the end to ask how his had gone. ‘Oh, ours was stillborn’, he said quietly, and I saw then his stricken young face.

I could think of nothing to say except ‘Oh, I’m so sorry’, apologising as much for my own tactless happiness as for the cruelty of chance, and perhaps there is nothing more useful anyway to be said in such cases. Yet at least this poem makes some attempt to grapple with that strangest and blankest of griefs.

For A Child Born Dead

What ceremony can we fit
You into now? If you had come
Out of a warm and noisy room
To this, there’d be an opposite
For us to know you by. We could
Imagine you in lively mood

And then look at the other side,
The mood drawn out of you, the breath
Defeated by the power of death
But we have never seen you stride
Ambitiously the world we know.
You could not come and yet you go.

But there is nothing now to mar
Your clear refusal of our world
Not in our memories can we mould
You or distort your character.
Then all our consolation is
That grief can be as pure as this.

Elizabeth Jennings

Week 424: Years Ago, by Elizabeth Jennings

One more on the theme of lost love, this time from the quietly effective Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001), who favoured a poetry of plain statement charged with deep emotion that, when it works, I often find more appealing than much showier stuff.

Years Ago

It was what we did not do that I remember,
Places with no markers left by us,
All of a summer, meeting every day,
A memorable summer of hot days,
Day after day of them, evening after evening.
Sometimes we would laze

Upon the river-bank, just touching hands
Or stroking one another’s hands with grasses.
Swans floated by seeming to assert
Their dignity. But we too had our own
Decorum in the small-change of first love.

Nothing was elegiac or nostalgic,
We threw time in the river as we threw
Breadcrumbs to an inquisitive duck, and so
Day entered evening with a sweeping gesture,
Idly we talked of food and where to go.

This is the love that I knew long ago.
Before possession, passion and betrayal.

Elizabeth Jennings

Week 23: One Flesh, by Elizabeth Jennings

One Flesh

Lying apart now, each in a separate bed,
He with a book, keeping the light on late,
She like a girl dreaming of childhood,
All men elsewhere – it is as if they wait
Some new event: the book he holds unread,
Her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead.

Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion,
How cool they lie. They hardly ever touch,
Or if they do, it is like a confession
Of having little feeling – or too much.
Chastity faces them, a destination
For which their whole lives were a preparation.

Strangely apart, yet strangely close together,
Silence between them like a thread to hold
And not wind in. And time itself’s a feather
Touching them gently. Do they know they’re old,
These two who are my father and my mother
Whose fire from which I came, has now grown cold.

Elizabeth Jennings

The best poems of Elizabeth Jennings are characterised by a quiet intensity and great formal skill; this compassionate, elegiac piece is perhaps my favourite among her oeuvre.