–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
-Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”
Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” has long been one of my favorite poems, not only for its beautiful lyricism, its gorgeous rhythms, its perfect villanelle-ness, but also for its ambiguity. I have studied this poem with other critics, taught this poem to both budding and experienced undergraduates, and still, I have seen people read this poem differently, depending on their circumstance.
I, personally, have always read this poem about the stoicism of loss. We try so hard to accept “the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent,” that when we “practice losing farther, losing faster,” we are experienced with loss. When we come to the Big Things, or, as Bishop herself writes them, “two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster/some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent,” we “miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.”
It’s not until the last stanza when Ms. Bishop breaks the rhythm and visual structure of the poem that we see the narrator’s emotions break down. “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”
That “(Write it!)” says it all. The parenthetical aside, the italicized recognition, the exclamation point. This is the moment of epiphany. This is the moment that the narrator understands what it means to lose. It may be an art she has conquered before, but she is instead conquered by it now.
I keep turning to poetry during this time because it’s what I know. I know the Romantics and their naive, beautiful approach to death. I know the Victorians, and their fetishistic, pragmatic approach to death. I even know the Modernists and their bitter acceptance of it. I know that Dylan Thomas scripted that “after the first death, there is no other.” But I never understood what these responses meant. I never understood why Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley retrieved Percy’s heart from the fire. I did not know why Robert Browning, years after Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s death, would script, with such hatred, a scathing response to a dead critic who dared rejoice in her passing. I never knew why Bishop’s narrator broke down in the last line of “One Art.”
Oh, I thought I knew. I did. In all my arrogance and glory and intellect, I believed I understood grief. I understood pain. What was I but an intellectual who could see, with such detached disinterestedness, the grief I myself had lived through? I had lost love–countless times, before I found my spouse. I had lost friends–good ones, too, whose passing still hurts to this day. I had lost myself, even, at times the hardest to find, in those darkened, deepest moments of truth and pain.
But I had not lost my mother.
It almost seems worse now, some four weeks after the fact. I dream of her, you see. Just normal, everyday dreams. And then I wake up, and remember she’s gone. I sleep in her room, use her bathroom, drive her car, eat at her favorite restaurants because for me, there is no escape. I am in New Orleans all summer–happily so, if it means comfort to my father–but it means also that I absolutely cannot escape it. She surrounds me. She is everywhere here. There is no breaking free.
Now that the initial shock has passed, now that the funeral is over, the cards and sympathies have stopped coming–I have had a month, after all, to luxuriate in grieving my mother–it’s time to Move On. At least, it should be. But this is when I’m finding it the absolute hardest to do so. I am drowning in it, in my grief, in my recognition of pain. It is everywhere I am. It is, as Bishop suggests, pure and simple Disaster.
There is no Art to Losing, though we pretend there is. I will now always be a motherless daughter. I will have changed so completely, and I cannot tell her about it. Not anymore. Every time I dream of her, I will wake up and remember, all over again, that she is gone, forever.
My beloved Victorians luxuriated in death, as I suggested above. Their long and intense, rigidly structured mourning rituals make a sense to me now that they never did before. The world would be kinder, I think, if I wore my weeds and black veil. If I beat my breast and tore at my hair. If I took to my room and did not come out for six months. But the world is no longer that gentle. This is not the world we live in anymore.
So I take to this, to words. These are my mourning weeds. These are my veils and black jet. See these words cloak me and understand, just a tiny bit, the pain that is encompassed inside.
Be gentle with me. Please.