As I explored previously in my 2004 collection, Chasing Catullus (and my subsequent study Piecing Together the Fragments), ancient, classical texts have long provided us with a means to articulate present grief. Five years ago this month, in November 2010, my mother died very suddenly of a heart attack. It took a long time to be able to write about this and even then, as with Chasing Catullus, I found I could do so only through the resonant echo of classical voices.
Just published in the latest edition of Agenda, Family Histories, the first sonnet here is based around lines from Aeneid 2 (735-55), in which Aeneas, escaping from a burning Troy with his family, realises to his horror that his wife Creusa is no longer with them. The second sonnet in this new sequence underscores the sense of grief as exile, ghosting a few lines from Aeschylus’ tragedy Suppliants (112-96) to show how a sudden and unexpected event can, in an instant, turn your known world into a strange and alien place.
(after Aeneid 2.735-55)
Up to that point, I was still in the dark.
I was retracing steps, staring down paths
I saw as ours, not knowing she had been
ripped from us already, had slipped unseen
as she sat down to rest. We’d just spoken –
I heard her laughing, hanging up the phone –
but when next we gathered, friends, family,
one of us would be missing, tricked away.
I bargained with gods I did not worship;
I blamed, I begged ambulance men, medics.
Reaching home, I tried to put on armour,
convincing myself that they had saved her,
that they had been in time, they had, they had…
In response there was only silence, dread.
(ghosting Aeschylus ll.112-96)
They had laid her out like a warrior,
placed a hand towel under slippered feet,
a doormat for head, shielded by her hair.
I knelt beside her, too soon yet to weep,
and, like a suppliant, I took her hand,
told her she was beautiful, loved, would be
always. This had been our sanctuary
but now we were fugitives, shored on land
we no longer knew. Now we spoke only
in laments, the savage language of hurt,
strangeness of mourning. Up ahead was dust,
the dirt cloud of an advancing army,
a whirl of axles churning up soft earth –
ruthless, muffled. And already on us.