I awake to a whatsapp from my daughter, with a link to an article in The Guardian about grandmothers. As I read, I’m filled with joy and recognition and thankfulness – not familiar feelings on first waking, when more often I feel like Sisyphus having to roll the day ahead up the mountain of time. That feeling usually passes, but I'm an early morning melancholic.
I listen to Pádraig Ó Tuama reading a poem while I drink my coffee. The title of the poem – Sestina – gives no clue about its content, but I choose it because I like Elizabeth Bishop. It's a serendipitous choice. It’s a poem about a grandmother, and about time and planets and tides and everything that is. It is, like all the best poems, a macrocosm within a microcosm – a world enfolded within a finely knitted shawl of words. She first titled it “Early Sorrow”, but later changed it.
Here is how Pádraig explains the poem:
This sestina poem considers a scene from Elizabeth Bishop’s own childhood through the sounds of six repeating words: house, grandmother, child, stove, almanac, tears. These six words repeat — in different order — as the final words of the poem’s lines, creating a kind of contemplation on how those repeated words informed her childhood: a childhood marked by loss, displacement, and a kind grandmother. “Time to plant tears” the poem states, in one of its most famous lines, as if the scene recalled has information about the future.
I climb over the dunes onto the wild and lonely beach to commune with the incoming tide and find my theme for the day, the thoughts I may or may not put into words. The sea is rippling calm in the rising sun. I resist the urge to take off my clothes and swim. I have a sore throat. It wouldn’t be wise, and grandmothers are supposed to be wise. But how I ache to immerse myself naked in the infinity of the quiet sea. I content myself with gazing near and far, at the shells adorning the beach and the little fishing boats coming home with their catch.
I find a rusted piece of metal, lines corroded, contours sculpted into organic shapes as if in death the sea has given it the semblance of a life once lived. I pick it up and hold in my arms the story of shipwrecked lives enfolded within its secret recesses and rusting hollows.
A shell catches the light. I put down my gift from the sea and set my camera to Macro to take a photo. Then I look up and see how the sea catches the light, and I set my camera to Ultra Wide and take another photo.
As I climb to the top of the dunes to head towards home, I muse on my favourite word – serendipity. That word is synonymous with grace, for if we see in the coincidence of the moment its connections to every other moment, if we join the passing thought to every other thought, then the serendipity of the moment becomes a gift, and that gift is grace. We can knit the story of time together like a shawl, where words as light as cashmere are only used to frame the gaps that give life the pattern that makes it beautiful. The deepest silence always holds the mysterious promise of newborn life, and words should only ever be used to protect and swaddle that silence. I think of the rabbinic idea of the Torah as black fire on white fire —words inscribed against the dazzling blaze of mystery.
Yes. That’s my theme for today. The gift from the sky and the infinite sea that I’ll carry home, in fragments of thought not yet knitted into words. I’d like to write a sestina – a patterned poem of language as delicate as the cashmere shawl my grandmother knitted for my babies, the shawl I wrapped my newborns in as an idealistic young mother, before the tides of time wore away the carefully chiselled lines and left me exploring the rusting hollows and sorrows of life. These are the hollows where grandchildren nestle, safe from the storms, swaddled in love. Serendipity. Gift. Grace.
My gran was a difficult woman who loved me. I grew up in a household of two women locked in battle under the sad and tender rule of a failing patriarch – the husband and son who lacked the authority they invested in him but who loved us with a drenching love. "Wait till your father gets home," my mother would say. One day those words sent me scuttling to hide in a wardrobe when I heard his footsteps. He found me there and wept, wrapping me in arms mottled from whisky and emphysema, like the delicate patterns in a cashmere shawl. Some gifts are too heavy to bear.
I realize I’ve left my piece of living metal on the beach. I forgot to pick it up when I took my photographs. I scramble down the dunes and find it almost covered by the tide. A woman with two dogs stops to chat. Serendipity? I don’t think so. My silence is plundered, and I regret the intrusion.
But in this small community we’ve moved to, one must learn to love the dogs if one is going to love one’s neighbours. So I stop and listen, and around me the world opens up to the infinite goodness of life.
The dogs are rescue dogs. They lie quietly at our feet as she tells her story. Does the sleek grey dog in the harness recognise himself in her words as he gazes up with trusting eyes?
He was a street dog in the mountains of Bosnia. I’ve been there. I remember the winding roads, the war-pocked walls and villages rising from the ruins, the old woman labouring along the road in her peasant clothes, with a face as shrivelled and brown as windfall apples on the autumn ground.
The street dog roamed the village and a woman came to love him, as she sat on her porch day after day nursing two broken ankles. All the villagers loved the dog, except one man who beat him and tortured him and threatened to shoot him.
We visited a museum of the Srebrenica Massacre in Sarajevo, but museums are for the dead and this was a place where the voices of the living speak through recordings choked by grief, and women gaze out from fading photographs of them with their sons and grandsons, fathers and brothers, families gathered together before the almanac said it was time to plant tears. I remember one woman saying through the hollow recording that her hand shook as she laid it on her husband's shoulder for the last time. Still today, that hand shakes because it holds the memory of that final touch. I've read that the Serbs set dogs upon the Bosnian men in the concentration camps. What agonies did that man in the village inflict on the dog, because torture was the only language left to him?
The woman with the broken ankles in the Bosnian village paid for the dog to be rescued and sent to England. She asked herself, "Did I do the right thing? What will happen to him in England?" I push away the demon judge inside, the sharp metallic voice that asks why we rescue dogs but let children die on Europe’s frozen borders. I want this story to be all gift, uncontaminated by those thoughts of right and wrong which split the world in two.
Now they Facetime together – the Bosnian woman with the broken legs and the dog with the tender, trusting eyes. I think of J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Disgrace, where the gift of love is offered in the kindness shown to a dying dog.
I say farewell and climb the dunes again, weeping, the gift of drifting metal in my arms, heavy and lovely as life, the silence inside expanding because now it must contain the universe.
My phone rings. It’s my daughter. Some things are more precious than silence. We chat. I don’t tell her about the Bosnian dog, but I tell her about the poem I listened to after I’d read the article she sent. “Serendipitous,” she says.
I think I’d like to write all this as a sestina. What six words would I choose? Shawl. Shell. Dog. Love. Tears. Serendipity.
Sestina, by Elizabeth Bishop
September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.
She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,
It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac
on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.
It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.
But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.
Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.