Poetry of a grieving husband after death did them part: Week in Books column


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A little blue book was left on my desk a few weeks ago. More a pamphlet than a book, with a paper cover bound by string. It looked like a catalogue or a theatre programme. I pushed it to one side of the desk, just above the bin, and it sat there until it was time for a clear-out, when I picked it up again and saw it was in fact a chapbook by Michel Faber called Poems for Eva, with a pink post-it note on top saying ‘These turned out well. F x’.

Faber, on publication of The Book of Strange New Things (2014), said he would not write any more fiction after the death of his wife of 26 years, Eva Youren, to cancer. He would continue to write non-fiction and poetry, and this collection of poems are all about the loss of Eva, though according to his publisher, Canongate, I should not have received them yet: 500 copies of an uncommercial run, not to be sold, have been printed, but are still to be posted out.

They are striking, all seven of them, for their arrangement, or re-arrangement, of the thoughts and feelings that constitute grief – that emotional “scattering” which Christopher Reid’s eponymous poem captured so vividly in the ritual of elephants rearranging the bones of their dead, included in his award-winning collection, A Scattering.

Faber’s is not, like Reid’s, a rounded study of a life, an illness and a death, from the onset of cancer (in both instances) to the last breath (“Sparse breaths, then none - /and it was done”). In that poem by Reid, what he does in the moments after his wife’s last breath suddenly gains a terrible importance. These poems by Faber dramatise that aftermath most powerfully: the contemplation of how to behave – how to live – after the death of someone so impossibly tied to the landscape of one’s life that it might require a rearrangement of one’s own identity.

Faber combines the prosaic with the epic, and the epic with the comic, to remind us how closely tragedy is tied to bathos. A lament over the dashing of the hope that old age will be reached is found in  Of Old Age, in Our Sleep. Another, Such a Simple Thing I Could Have Fixed, expresses regret, with a note of self-chiding, over the small imperfections that might have added to the indignities of his wife’s sickbed – clutter in the room, mismatched linen –  which seems vaguely reminiscent of an early scene in The Book of Strange New Things where a husband regrets that his last act of passion with his wife, in a car, just before he leaves for another planet, was not satisfying for her, and may leave the wrong lasting memory.

There is fury at the tragic minutiae of daily life that remains after she’s gone in Account Holder  (“The helpline man/refuses to help/because I am not you./He needs – by letter – proof/that you are dead…”).  And anguished liberation from his duty as carer in  Your Plants  which is too long – sadly – to be quoted in full here: “I am the man who stands in the shower/twenty inches from those plants/weeping into the torrent…/while your plants, brown and stoic,/watch.”

A far more epic and existential anger comes in  Don’t Hesitate to Ask  which conjures images of Orpheus storming the underworld to fetch Eurydice, except Faber knows Eva can’t be brought back, so gate-crashes God’s heavenly domain and metaphorically holds Him to account:

“Wait for me while I break

down the boardroom door

and drag the high and mighty fucker

out of his conference with Eternity,

his summit on the Mysteries of Life,

and get him to explain to me

why it was so necessary

to torture and humiliate

and finally exterminate

my wife.”

The poem is mortifying, but not without bathos in its switch to the timid response to bereavement offered by those around him, exemplified in the quintessentially British impotence of a cup of tea.

The dead, in their death, leave only objects, and the fetishising of these things has often featured in writings on loss. Joan Didion wrote of her late husband’s shoes, still by the door, as if waiting to be filled. Faber himself was quoted as cherishing a pair of Eva’s red ankle boots. What makes his poem You Chose Well  (about the shared home Eva chose ) such a bittersweet remembrance is the sense that the object is adored because it absorbs a little of the loved one within it (“The light still casts its spell./My love, you chose so well”).

The mystery of how Poems for Eva got to my desk continues, but either way, “You were right F.  A x”.