Thursday, July 03, 2014

`But Only For a Day'

Odd to mourn for someone we hardly knew. It might be argued in such cases that we are, in fact, mourning ourselves, and I wouldn’t quibble. Memory bestows a hallowed quality on even the inconsequential and faintly remembered. I watched a movie the other day made in the early seventies. In one scene we briefly glimpse an avocado-colored refrigerator. I remembered the vogue for appliances in that hideous color but nevertheless felt a pang for lost youth. Memory is sovereign and inscrutable, and plays by its own rules. Each of us remembers things not remembered and perhaps never known by another soul. A unique metaphysical category – solitary memories that evaporate with the death of the one who remembers them. Unless written down or otherwise recorded, they disappear beyond recovery. Of course, the risk is sentimentality, lending undue importance to the unworthy. Some things are better forgotten, and not all of them are unpleasant. 

I’ve just learned that a fellow I worked with forty year ago is dead. We drank and did drugs together but were never friends. I don’t think I ever visited his house and I’m certain he never visited mine. Our acquaintance was comfortable but never intimate. We expected nothing of each other except, I suppose, companionability. I learned some years ago that while I had stopped drinking, he persisted. The reports were not good, and now he’s dead at age fifty-nine. His death costs me nothing. We haven’t spoken since the seventies, though not out of rancor, and most of his life is a blank to me. With such memories we enter Stevie Smith’s realm. Here is her “Some Are Born” (Collected Poems, 1975): 

“Some are born for peace and joy
Some are born for sorrow
But only for a day as we
Shall not be here tomorrow.” 

Smith’s rhythm and rhyme undercut what might have been cloyingly sweet or self-pitying. I’m reminded of the note Italo Svevo sent his wife, asking that his funeral be conducted “without ostentation of any kind, even of simplicity.”

1 comment:

Cleanthess said...

Stevie Smith on that poem was probably having some fun with Blake's:

Every Night and every Morn
Some to Misery are Born.
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight.
Some are Born to Endless Night.