I couldn't imagine writing one in that length of time. I set, as I always do, to reading. (On a recent Facebook post, a poet called me "the poet who reads more than she writes." What? You all don't??) One group of elegies I re-read often is Seamus Heaney's cycle of sonnets on his mother's death, "Clearances." Auden's elegy to Yeats had some very useful lines, since Yeats died in a terribly cold month, and my friend, though she died in Atlanta, was coming home to be buried in a frigid Ohio February. While reading and re-reading elegies, I asked the Wom-po Listserv (a group for the discussion of Women's Poetry, which I have been a member of for over a decade) for suggestions. Many of its hundreds of members sent many suggestions and sent their own poems and their friends' poems. I was awash in beautiful elegies. Wompo's Patricia Fargnoli suggested Mary Oliver's "White Owl Flies into the Field" and many people suggested Patricia's "Duties of the Spirit," both of which I highly recommend to you if you are looking for beautiful poems to be read graveside. None quite fit, not even that many recommended Shelley, and I was so aware of the power of his elegies from work I did with small grade schoolers decades ago.
I had studied the elegy in the early 1980s when I was a poet in the schools at Clinton Elementary in Canal Fulton. The children's beloved third grade classmate had just died of leukemia. The principal, Marc Crail, one of the wisest educators I have ever known, thought elegies would be a good lesson for the day. I studied up on classical English poetry, and Shelley, whom I read to the children--"Oh weep for Adonais, for he is dead"--, along with many other poets, Shelley was the one the children most took most to heart, took into their own remembrances of their friend. I recalled my college professor's lecture on the American elegy, "What to Make of a Diminished Thing" with references to "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" and Roethke's "Elegy for Jane." I looked up the classical form in The Princeton Anthology of Poetry and Poetics and recalled the three parts of the elegy: lamentation, praise, and consolation. But all that was a long time ago, and I had the distance of not knowing the deceased and being the teacher who was helping the children who did, and I never wrote a poem then.
But a few women poets emailed me, "You can do this. You can write this," and to them I am most grateful. I began by thinking I would write a cento, a form I love, which consists of lines borrowed from other poems. I had collected a lot of lines. But my cento was not coming together as the clock was ticking.
Pressing in on me was the belief that we would all be standing graveside in a very very cold Ohio February, so I figured my poem had to be short. Shelley's "Adonais" is 17 pages long. I thought maybe one stanza for each of the three parts of the classical elegy, rather than five pages.
In the end, we were not graveside but still, in a cold, unheated stone building in the cemetery. The minister had already spoken in the funeral home, as had many many friends with wonderful stories of what a terrific, memorable human being Linda was. This last moment of tribute, for which twenty-carloads of people had driven through the city of Canton, had three parts: the reading of my poem, the a capella singing of a song by her college friend Eric Kristensen, and finally, the giving of a white rose to each person from Linda's husband, Peter Farranto.
The poem, which I will share below, bears traces of my cento idea with quotes from Jean Valentine, Seamus Heaney, and Thorton Wilder, as well as a whiffs from Auden on Yeats and "Lenox Hill" by Agha Shahid Ali. I do not at all mean to suggest that my poem has the grand sweep or the linguistic ability of any of the poems or poets I have mentioned here, only that like the Beatles, I get by with a little help from my friends. I will be missing Linda's help for a long time:
Flowers Back Home in Winter
An elegy for Linda Ecksmith
April 17, 1951- January 23, 2018
So what use is poetry
in this ice-covered Ohio cemetery,
the mercury plunging at the end of this week,
coldest day so far—as our hearts plunged
last week, the ambulance siren wailing in Atlanta
and we, wailing by our phones and laptops
for her husband’s messages through the night
to the next afternoon, when she was finally gone,
with her pain, and ours began anew.
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space her life had left had been emptied
into us to keep, it penetrated our memories,
opening like peonies, expanding: years of letters,
phone calls, emails, posts—such wit with words
that woman had. And stubborn? Honey, I mean
to tell you. Birds of paradise suddenly stand
among us: her bright laughter and smile,
then the wild flowers of her friends’ singing,
which she loved, the dishes she cooked up for us,
our abiding love of her, all unmatched
by Peter’s astounding, surrounding, lifting love.
The purpose of poetry is to offer consolation,
and I have little, would prefer a dirge. On Facebook,
she still lists her religion as a Skeptic,
and like her, I have no surety or certainty
to offer. But I wish for her the peace that passes
my poor understanding, and for you, if you wish
these perennials from the playwright which comfort
and sustain me, stolen and scattered like roses here at last:
Wasn’t it wonderful to have known
and loved her? What glory! What fun!
What goodness! What lovableness!