Tomorrow marks the eighth anniversary of my mother’s death. As anyone who has suffered a similar loss will know, this time has passed so slowly and at the same time so quickly too. Last year I published a sequence of thirty sonnets, Letting Go, which traced the process of bereavement after a sudden death, from the first days of dazed disbelief to some kind of final acceptance, both of which will clearly be different for everyone. Last month I wrote the Afterword for a vast new study, Virgil and his Translators, edited by the endlessly patient Susanna Braund and Zara Torlone, in which I discussed a few of the sonnets in Letting Go I had written out of passages from Virgil’s Aeneid.
One of these, ‘Let Go’, which comes towards the end of the sequence, is based on a passage from Virgil, Aeneid, 2.768-94. Here, as Aeneas desperately searches Troy for his missing wife Creusa, her ghost appears to him, telling him to move on to Rome without her. The sonnet is based on a real dream I had in a Bed and Breakfast in Norwich after speaking at a seminar at the University of East Anglia – the sort of dislocation, the waking in strange beds that those who travel often for work will recognise – in which my mum did appear to me, suddenly, out of crowds on a street. In ‘Let Go’ I voiced my narrative through Aeneas’s first person account. This was because I was looking to transgress/transcend gender, but also because I wanted Creusa’s ghost to become my mother’s – which, inevitably, then cast me, in turn, as Aeneas. I also liked the device of turning Creusa’s somewhat dark message into a hopeful, warm one as this reminded me so much of the sort of thing my mother would do – the sort of thing she would want to say to me if she could (if not necessarily encouraging me to found a city empire …). As I wrote in my Afterword for Virgil and his Translators it ‘seemed a fitting memorial to my mother’s always unwavering support of my ambitions’:
Those nights I called her name in vain again
and again, filled ruined cities with tears.
I dreamt I reached familiar streets, my fear
fixing tongue to roof of mouth, hair on end;
again she came to me through parted crowds,
smarter than ever in weathershield mac,
blood red lipstick and jaunty, matching hat
like a warrior plume. ‘I can’t stay long now,’
she said, ‘yet am always here. Remember
to hold your hopes close, guard your ambition.
Love. Travel. Most of all, let go anger
or this exile of grief will be too long.’
I tried and tried and tried to embrace her
but, like a thought on waking, she was gone.