“He disappeared in the dead of winter…” I woke at 4 a.m. to the steady drip of icy rain outside my bedroom window, and the arrow of a thought lodged in my mind. My husband, he of the clear conscience and firm convictions, is still sleeping, while I am sitting here in front of my glowing screen, reading W. H. Auden’s poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” and struggling with the things I want to say.
“What instruments we have agree/The day of his death was a dark cold day.” You died seventy-four years ago, on a day like this one. It is still dark and cold outside, W. B. Yeats. And yet I can’t sleep for thinking of you. Too bad Maude Gonne didn’t have the same problem, right?
Seventy-four years ago, words failed you. They are failing my grandfather, too, W. B. He lies in a home full of nurses and rumours, Parkinson’s eating away indiscriminately at the devil and the angel in him. He loves beauty like you did. He looks like you. The similarity struck me so much once that I wrote a truly dreadful poem about it. Sometimes I wish I had words like yours, but I wonder if I could afford what you had to pay for them.
“You were silly like us.” You were a deeply quirky man, with your sex surgeries and unrequited love. And yet Mad Ireland hurt you into transcendence. Poetry hurts. I can only imagine the hurt that impelled you to the terrible beauty of your poems.
This world is still hurting, W. B. It was slipping into world war as you lay dying. My grandfather fought in that war. I’m sifting through history and memory for connections between us, because I want to think that you’re still here, speaking to me across decades and the wide Atlantic. And I wonder, in those seventy-four years, if anything has changed. We’re still moving through a nightmare of the dark, W. B. The foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart is just as ugly as it ever was. You walked and prayed for your infant daughter, that she might be beautiful but not too beautiful to find happiness. I breathed a prayer of thanks that my little boy wasn’t gunned down in his kindergarten classroom.
“Follow, poet, follow right/To the bottom of the night.” Your poetry chronicles your descent to those dark depths. Your early poems are charming and lyrical, poignant retellings of Irish legend and allegory. You make me want to plant nine bean-rows, and the hum of my bees reminds me of you. But you aged and withered, your mind refined in the fire of contemplation and self-examination. And your poetry changed. It darkened, found its power, and cast the worst of human nature into the blinding light of day. I love you for this, for the sweet magic of your youthful voice as well as the horrified honesty of your age.
“In the deserts of the heart” you traveled, a lone wanderer. You were so brave, and, I imagine, as terrified and enthralled as me by the beauties and horrors of this world. Thank you for teaching me how to praise. I don’t know if I’m free yet, but within your words I soar in a widening gyre toward the sun.
Read W. H. Auden’s poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15544; or listen to him reading a different version of it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRsrHwbk2uc
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