The essay and the sequence of poems that follow were written after the death in Delhi, India, of my youngest brother, Paddy Jolley in January 2012. Paddy was a photographer and a film-maker. He was working on a version of Finnegan’s Wake at the time of his death from a heart attack at the age of just 47. His partner, Lu Thornely and their two infant sons, Ned and Thomas, had been staying with her cousin and his family in Sri Lanka. Paddy was cremated in Delhi in accordance with Hindu funeral rites. The essay is a meditation on grief and is not specific to my brother’s death. The poems are mostly addressed to him personally. They are really one long poem, but they are separated out to help the reader to understand the events behind them. They are dedicated to Lu and the children who have helped to fill the empty space left by Paddy’s death.
Two summers ago we spent a couple of weeks in a cottage on the Iveragh Penisula in County Kerry. For the first week the rain was relentless. Out on the side of a mountain with two young spaniels who needed exercise, I lost my footing in driving rain and fell into a bog hole. Flailing around in the half light in water up to my chest, I made contact with something bubbling and putrid and mostly submerged. I was sharing the bog hole with the rotting remnants of a long dead sheep.
Unlike the sheep I managed to crawl from the hole, then stumbled back down the mountain into a steaming hot bath. My clothes went into the washing machine, came out, went in. Again and again and again. There’d been a scummy slick on the bog water, a skim of greyish bubbles and strands of old wool. It must have been the oils from the animal’s body. Now I couldn’t get the death-smell out of my clothes, no matter how often I washed them. Nor out of my skin though I scrubbed it with sweet-smelling soap.
I became obsessively conscious of it. I would sit at my table in the rented house, unable to work. There were spreading brown stains on the plastered wall beside me that came from the heat of the huge old chimney-flue behind the wall. I imagined the warmth of the room was increasing the smell and drawing it from my skin. I moved downstairs but it was no better.
A few days later we went to a friend’s for dinner, a house on the edge of the sea. I sat in a room full of books and talk and food, a life far removed from the bog and moor and silence of the mountains. Self-conscious, I put my arm behind my back, but an arm is attached to the body and can’t be altogether dispensed with. The smell came slinking out into the room and licked itself round me. Convinced that it was rank and authentic, I began to explain to the woman I was talking to. She said she had a wonderful nose and demanded a sniff at my arm. I held it out.
‘Imagination,’ she pronounced decisively.
I thought at the time that it must have been a neurotic reaction. I have since been surprised at the number of people who confirmed the experience and spoke of a similar obsession with smell following contact with something dead.
Perhaps, like death itself, the smell stays in the nostrils long after the actual occasion has passed. Perhaps the body holds onto the smell of another body’s demise, even if the body isn’t human. Worse if it’s human: war diaries all record being overwhelmed by smell. Presumably it’s the shock of premonition: the recognition by the body of its own mortality, its terror at the unavoidable abandonment that is coming to it.
A young woman whose father was killed in a car crash told me of her inability to manage her life for a long time after the event. As well as the grief that overwhelmed her in the immediate aftermath, she described its unpredictable reappearance in the most unlikely times and situations. She also spoke of making stupid mistakes, of confusion in managing the simplest transactions, of losing words in company.
She said that 50 years ago she’d have slipped a black arm-band onto her sleeve every morning for a year before she left the house. She talked of how, in modern Celtic-Tiger Ireland, she had longed for an arm-band because it would have explained her situation, have been like the red light flashing on the car that drives ahead of a vehicle that’s too long or too wide or too slow for the road that it’s travelling.
Look out. Here come’s grief.
Everyone stops or pulls into the side and makes allowances.
That’s completely gone now. We still do the death-thing—the wake, the vigil, the removal and the funeral. It’s very communal, very intense. But when all that’s done we get up in the morning thinking that somehow it’s over. We expect ourselves to be able to act as though this event that blocked out the stars has safely moved into the past. We are unprepared for the sheer intensity of the pain that’s about to kick in.
But the death-smell is in our nostrils and in our clothes and deep in the pores of our skin. Though strangers cannot smell it, we can smell nothing else.
When death happens we find that a part of us already knows quite a lot about the corporeal side of what has to be coped with. We may not have fought in a war or worked in an abattoir or fallen into a bog-hole with a dead sheep, but we’ve all experienced the private reality of our own physicality, we know about blood and pain and shit and our own fear of it. We are generally less overwhelmed by the sight of death than we think we will be.
What is so surprising is that we have supposed that seeing the corpse is the greater part of what we will have to deal with.
The suffering that we experience at the death of someone we love very much—especially when that death is untimely and we feel that a life has not been lived—is unimaginably painful. What is even more shocking is that there is nothing that can be done to relieve this pain, we just have to trudge through each day and endure it. Sometimes we think we can’t.
Everyone tells us this pain will lessen but they speak from a reality that has very little to do with us, even if they have themselves experienced what we are now going through. So it isn’t that we don’t believe them: we simply stare at them blankly waiting for their mouths to stop moving.
That they are speaking from a different reality is literally true. Death pushes us deeper into our lives, we act and react from a place that is not normally accessible to us, we experience phenomena that at other times we would be unable to experience. Where does the spirit go when it leaves the body behind it? I don’t know, but I think there is an intermediate stage when it still has occasional access to the life it previously occupied, however briefly. Immediately following an important death there is the possibility of an interchange that would not otherwise happen and that mostly disappears once we have moved back into our normal lives and the dead have moved on to other realms. This can be both comforting and disturbing. With the passing of time it happens less frequently and is less intense. Both parties are moving away from each other and are becoming established in their changed state of being. Slowly the suffering of he (or she) who loves lessens until the day comes when there are moments when it is almost absent. If these moments join up for even a brief period of time, then we are capable of relaxing into a state of non-suffering. Once non-suffering becomes established there is again the possibility of joy. (Strangely it is possible to experience joy when in a state of physical suffering, but emotional suffering cancels it out.)
The return of joy, however fleeting, is usually accompanied by feelings of betrayal and hence the return of suffering. A yo-yo movement has begun. There is a gap in the intensity of our grief so life rushes in. Fear of the return of intense suffering is almost as painful as the suffering itself.
People talk a lot about anger following a death, but perhaps this anger is simply a variation on suffering—a kind of substitute that happens when the truly devastating pain has eased for a little and it is possible to be angry at the person who has died for causing it. If the relationship was complicated and there were a lot of unresolved issues then the feeling of abandonment that has caused the anger is more intense. There are also the bubbles of gas that rise up from the body in the bog-hole. Sometimes we discover things we did not know, are brought face to face with aspects of the dead person they have concealed from us. It doesn’t have to be the mistress who turns up at the funeral. There are often small ambushes, many of them simply things we chose not to see.
The emotional instability around anger, betrayal and pain bring us close to chaos. But a return to ‘normality’ would mean an odd kind of loss. Somewhere there is an awareness in us that we are living on a different plane, and somewhere we also crave the purity and intensity of this plane—as those whose lungs are used to high, clean air crave relief from the smog and fumes of a city. On this other level it is possible to be alone with your dead and to feel their presence. This is hard to let go of, though it must be accomplished. It is the only thing that will bring about the release of the dead. To dwell there too long is not our purpose in life. Somehow we must find the grace to accept the living.
I think we are ‘saved’ back into life by matter. The weeks and months pass and the flesh we inhabit reasserts its dominance. The weight returns to the things of the world and the strange clear light that we lived in becomes too strange and clear. The disturbing feelings of guilt at the prospect of a return to a state of being that is closer to normality begin to recede. We want food, warmth, density: the wet dogs drying in the heat of a fire that is contained and domesticated, its ferocious energy channeled through a hearth and a chimney.
But we have experienced that energy, and the plaster on our wall is discoloured and disfigured like the flue-wall in that cottage in the mountains. We know its power. Every time the phone rings our equanimity is shattered—we are back in the bog-hole, floundering around in disaster. And the reality of our existing disaster makes the potential for further disaster unlimited. We have lost all trust in dailiness. No amount of reassurance can counter the ongoing psychic disturbance our dreams convey to us. All is not right. It will never be right in quite the same way again. We have made contact with what is deep inside us and also with what is beyond us. There is a pathway opened between them.
It is important to remember that the dead do not belong to us. When a death is that of a young child it is all but impossible to grasp this. A young child is dependent and in our care. When they die we feel that our roles continue. This is also true of adults where the parents and siblings have had a strong nurturing role. They know they must cede this role to the wife, husband or partner, in death as in life, but the weight of years makes that harder to do. There are so many photographs and memories that happened before the new union. In death, the first family yearns to reclaim its child. The partner is also staking a claim. Everything gets confused. Hence the unseemly scramble for possessions after a death.
Obtaining a possession is like proof of ownership. Possessions are valuable, not for themselves, but for their relationship to the person who has died. A lighter, a wallet, a hairbrush—intimate things that were used every day—become charged. We imagine they retain something of their owner. By treasuring them we think we can somehow prolong their belonging among us.
But the dead belong to themselves. They have completed their lives, even if the death came about through violence. Somewhere a contract has been signed off on and nothing will undo what has been done. Nor can we follow them or hold onto them once they have ceased to meet with us on the plane of between. We can only cherish what we had and let them go.
I do not move much beyond matter.
What is touched, seen, heard.
The stunned bird kicks in my hand.
I watch its eyes dull and glaze over.
It is mute, warm, dead.
I trust in its death.
That it lived, that it died.
Stay. Hold out your hand.
your fingers linked his.
My hand seeks yours.
This is the chain of belonging.
This is as much as I know.
After You Died
I am in Dunnes Stores
thumbing through a rack of wet-suits
trying to find an age-4 for your son.
You are in a rented room in Delhi
smoking and making notes for your latest film.
I am always stuck in Dunnes Stores
trying to find the right wet-suit.
You are always alone in a narrow room,
smoking and making notes.
Your heart is failing but you still don’t know it.
It’s hard to breathe—for me, as well as for you.
Sometimes I wish I could stop loving you.
I am sitting up in bed in the rented house.
The cover is black and white stripes.
There are two windows to the room.
In front of me lies the inlet
and a big lump of raw-boned hillside
crowned with soft soggy cloud.
The window beside the bed
frames sky and thin-coloured sands
woven with marram grass.
I am thinking of the drawer I opened in my mother’s study,
the hundreds of your photos that I found there
from that first India trip
I dipped Thomas into the waves.
He liked being dipped,
he slapped at the water and splashed.
He’s one year old and one month.
You’ve been dead for just seven months.
When I was fifteen I dipped you into the waves.
When I saw the Sydney Nolan picture
of Ned Kelly’s sister quilting his black helmet
I knew that’s what I’d always tried to do.
A useless love-filled gesture,
the failure of the gesture,
the blood on the blue quilting,
the blood on your face in the morgue.
If it hadn’t been India
it would have been somewhere else.
Perhaps I’m glad it was India.
Perhaps I’m glad that your window
opened onto the market.
And over the road, the pigeons,
soft coloured rows in their boxes,
talking in low tumbling voices
lost in the roar from the street.
Had you already drowned in India?
There was the photo of the Ganges,
the liquid light floating the evening water,
the way you broke it as you raised your hand to wave,
the time that you went swimming from the ghats.
They put your ashes in a wooden box. It was a handsome box with a lock and two keys, and ornamental metal chasing round the base and the lid. I carried you through security, Seán carried your three-year-old, Lu carried your baby. In the plane, we put you in the overhead luggage bins with all the other hand-baggage. It was a long journey. The baby was in one of those fold-down cribs, but the stewardess wouldn’t let your three-year-old sleep on the floor. I wouldn’t let her wake him. I told her you’d just died. I said the plane wasn’t full, there was plenty of room in the next section—if we couldn’t leave the child on the floor she could move one of the people lying stretched across three seats. She went away. She came back. Lu carried him through and laid him down, still sleeping, across two cleared seats. I sat beside him while he slept.
When we got to London Lu’s father was waiting. They took your bags and we took your box. We went to a Pret a Manger to buy a sandwich before the Dublin flight. Séan was at the counter paying. You were heavy so I put you on the floor. Two young Australian lads standing beside me noticed your box and began to admire it. They asked where I’d got it? I said it was my brother’s ashes, I was taking them home to Ireland. I think they thought they hadn’t heard right. Then they looked at each other’s faces and they knew they had. They said they were sorry. Then they weren’t there, and Seán was handing me a camembert and cranberry sandwich in a cardboard wrapper.
Watching the Fire Take Your Body
Remember those blue irises I’d left for years?
You dug them out with Seán’s big fork,
then left them on the grass for me to split.
After you’d gone I wrenched and tore.
Got nowhere, gave up struggling, fetched the spade.
That mat of yellow roots, the slicing blade,
the last despairing heave, the rain of soil—
the shock still live and scorching through my flesh.
Suddenly there was a different significance in everything. Sometimes I disappeared from myself. Everything stilled, I’d be watching a bird pecking around on the gravel and yet there was no one inside me to watch. I would look around the room I was in, but no one inside me was looking. I lost all concept of time passing. Fear didn’t exist. Then gradually the world would begin to re-form into a more familiar state.
After one of these experiences I would be confused and tired and dissatisfied. I would go for long walks and reorganise the flower garden, moving the plants from where they’d always lived to somewhere else. At first I thought I might be dying myself, I thought that perhaps I had a brain tumour. Once or twice I almost said it to Seán but the words didn’t come. Once out, there’d be doctors and tests, and the possibility of treatment. Sometimes I saw Seán look at me then look quickly away. So he, too, had decided to say nothing.
Then I began to realise that something different was going on, that the stillness came from a different level. When there was no one there, I hadn’t left myself, it was only that my ‘I’ had been dissolved into something wider.
And I understood afresh that everyone is always inside the act of dying at the same time as being inside the act of living. The door is always open, and there’d been no choice for you anymore than there’d be choice for me if I had a fatal and inoperable brain tumour. You’d simply walked through the door that you’d stood beside since the day of your birth.
Life Gone Away is Called Death
This couple that we met who live in Dresden
sent us a book of photos of their city,
all taken when the war was near its end.
Sometimes the dead are sitting in the rubble
still warmly dressed in coats and hats and boots,
their shoulders resting casually together,
companionable, despite the strangeness,
the hollowing eyes, the skim of wrinkled milk,
the frame of bone just working to the surface.
I don’t know why we need to live in bodies,
or why, when we have left, they hang around,
still stubbornly at home in linear time.
I’m reading the book you lent Seán
a few weeks before you died.
Some of the pages have their corners folded over.
I’m flickering through the book,
grubbing for more turn-downs,
scanning the text beneath to guess your mind—
Why can’t I leave you alone and stop prying?
What is it that I need to understand?
When you’d been dead a year he found the bag—
those clothes you’d worn in India—not unpacked.
He tucked them round the edges of his bed.
Lu saw, said nothing, let him take his time.
After a while he put them back himself. His body
must have drawn from yours the strength it needed.
When the bus from Dublin drew in
I didn’t see your long stretch
swing down through the opened door.
There was only the calling of crows
high in the empty trees,
only the morning light on the winter grass.
So it seems I don’t have to lose you over and over,
each time a Kavanagh’s bus
pulls in off the Carlow Road.
It makes me feel weightless and plundered.
You’re walking off into the distance,
you don’t want us pulling you back.
In San Vicente
Hiddenness is the ballast on the ship’s keel, the great underwater portion of a life that steadies the rest.—Jane Hirshfield
The morning is sunlit and still. It is like being inside the shell of an oyster. There is light gleaming on the edge of the table and on the side of the closed book. It is coming in low from the East.
The sorrow says ‘of what use are such observations? That which may be called joy, and which may, in time, return, will not be making observations.’
So sorrow must be to do with not being at the centre, with being only partially present in life. Sorrow wants to live in a photograph or in a memory.
Yesterday it was raining so we went to the great, disused church on the hill. When I went into the church I was looking for something hidden. I found nothing. There was a vast stone nave, a carved and painted altarpiece, some side chapels.
Jane Hirshfield is a Buddhist. Buddhists are into the wisdom of hiddenness. When we came out of the church there was daylight. There were people, wandering about in the rain. I think hiddenness is all around us. If by hiddenness you mean what is precious and mysterious. It is very simple and very visible and flourishes best when it isn’t organised. Like Joy.
Empty Space Poem, Eighteen Months
In the photo there’s a child astride your shoulders.
You are moving through the cut-gold of a field.
The hedgerow trees are thickening and darkening.
The sky’s a constant, clear, heraldic blue.
You are on the right side, walking slowly.
The left side of the meadow’s deep and still.
I’ve cut it down the middle, framed and hung it.
We pass you every time we climb the stairs.
Which leaves the empty half for me to deal with:
the empty field, the hedgerow-trees, the sky.
I’ve framed that too, I keep it on the shelf
above my desk, slipped in between two books.
I tell myself you’re everywhere around me.
That summer is still sumptuous, people die.
These are the separated halves of the same picture.
We two went swimming very early. A fine mist
billowed on the still green lake and shrouded the far trees.
We toweled off in the silence, hardly speaking.
A heron moved its station in the shallows.
There’s no one else who would have done this with me:
swum so far out, and at that hour, and into such deep water.
Strange how your absence
can allow your presence.
Between Here and There
It is so still your heart would break with longing:
watching the world awaken from the mild, calm night.
A brown hare lopes across dew-thickened grass,
the deep woods yield and open to receive it.
I’m drawn now to all frontiers, shadows, borders,
edges of fields and roads and open places,
where space runs out of being space and changes
into a refuge from the weight of being seen.
a dull cloth.
Frog-spawn in the ditches
thickens like thought.
Some shoulder’s pushing
against an unlatched door.
but empty, whitening air.
Already it’s too late
for winter’s splintered light,
its rank folds, thorned weave,
its clean, bitter stars.
The levels change, a subtle shift
it takes a while to grasp.
‘But lay to your heart my rough gift /this unlovely dry necklace of dead bees /that once made a sun out of honey.’
Alive we are autistic, stuck in detail.
It is a necessary way to be.
Don’t mind the dead bees, sweep them from the table.
Their sting’s long gone, the thread that strung them, broken.
Your pyre is ash, it floats the wind, remember and forget.
So many suns we made of honey.