(Note: I wrote this 20 years ago after watching the classic Japanese film, “Tokyo Story.” I’m posting it now because I feel it applies to my dear friend and poet, Patricia D’Alessandro, who recently passed. I also offer it as food for thought to those grieving the passing of a loved one.)
When a death is poignant—that is, when it is not merely a statistic, but is the culmination of intimacy with the deceased—its emotional beauty has power to transcend the blunt edge of its insistence felt as a sense of hideous loss. We go to it as it comes to us; we may not embrace it, but we breathe its atmosphere as if sitting in the presence of a sage.
This attitude toward death is not possible if life has not unwittingly prepared us by including us in, or at least having us witness, something of the daily round—habits, mannerisms, characteristics, interactions—of the one who has died. Over a period of time this accumulation of the ordinary creates a mood, not to say an insight, an impression, more durable than any outburst of talent. As Emerson knew, life is not fireworks, not even falling stars (though hearts may be warmed by and applaud them when they encapsulate a grand life). It is more likely the slow, jerky, random increment of ordinary living that eventually, as I say, makes an impression greater often than art.
But it is not so ordinary if it has blessed itself with poetic attention. The role of the artist, the “creative,” far from being demeaned, is invaluable since he or she can selectively create the conditions for that attention. In fact, this is what the poet of word, screen, paint, etcetera, does . . . not in order to “clean up” death, but to raise it in consciousness to the sacred, which means to present death as an inherently beautiful act, without all the cultural or indeed psychological overlay.
This does not mean to ban emotion or even passion from the room. But emotion, along with perception, becomes an inner river of peace, calmed by an absence of judgment and by simply looking, listening to what is occurring or has occurred. In fact, its very ordinariness has power to deepen, to impassion feeling, so that a simple gesture might evoke an entire personal history.
When death comes with its heightening of sensitivity, gestures take on added—or rather, deepened—significance. As if death alone could teach us how precious our lives are down to the most mundane acts. As if death, usually self-effacing, essentially voiceless, bashful for all its intrepidity and inurement to our brutal emotional relationship to it, were the supreme teacher, the gentle force that has kept us on the edge of beauty.