Public Grief is a Rare Beast

Frank Kermode, the author of one my first critical readings of Shakespeare, died on Tuesday, the 17th.

A theologian I’ve never read, but should have, Clark Pinnock, died this week too, the 15th.

Abbey Lincoln died on the 14th. In only the last couple of years, I have begun to listen to her music. Really only a couple of songs. “Throw it Away” is nice; although, honestly, I’ve never bothered to more than hum along. Ask me “throw what away?” and I’m stumped. The truth is: I have found more in Abbey Lincoln’s death than I have lost.

I discovered, a year late, that Michael Mazur had died (August 18, 2009). Reading about it, I thought: “Hey, I met that guy … and now he’s gone”. He was a kind and patient teacher (for an afternoon) as he made the Inferno tour rounds with his collaborator, Robert Pinsky.

When Czeslaw Milosz died (August 14, 2004), I had been waiting for it. I went to my shelves, looked at his books and thought, forlornly: “Well, there will be no more of these”.

I remember feeling disappointed when Denise Levertov died (December 20, 1997). I had assumed we would meet, first. We did not. As it turns out, as with most people I meet, we would have had little to say. She would have been one more boyhood favorite for me to find (at no fault of her own) less gracious than I had imagined. Having read only a handful of her poems, what place would I have had in her life?

When Donald Davie left (September 18, 1995), I figured he was glad enough to go. I turned to his “The Thirty-ninth Psalm, Adapted” and reread, as I do many times a year, this poem … which I have absorbed, if not wholly memorized.

Public grief is a strange phenomenon. To call it “grief” is to err. “Mourning” is a better word. Grief hollows out, ties up the gut and unmarrows the bones. For most of us, Frank Kermode’s death is nothing more than a tick on the clock, a passing interest. But mourning, great or small, is a spectacle. The greater known the person, the closer it ranks to public execution. James Brown, Ted Kennedy, Michael Jackson.

Spectacle too, these eulogies of the writers and artists I did and did not meet. Mourning is a public performance in any size. I suppose (although, for the most part, I lack experience) family funerals are also spectacles. They serve a communal function. They’re roll calls; not merely a visual check of who’s still alive or who was recently born or married or divorced, but an indicator of clan cohesiveness.

When my uncle died, I hardly knew him. I can remember maybe five visits. My mother made no effort to insist I attend the funeral. Perhaps she said I didn’t need to go, but I can’t remember. Encumbered and fourteen hours away, I did not it make to the spectacle. This was a mistake. It confirmed family suspicions that I am the son who doesn’t care. I missed the roll call. Mourning serves a function with or without grief.

When is it that the public grieves? Are we not, even in calamities (I’ve lamented the BP oil spill) merely expressing our anger and fear? I’m no good at mourning; I blame this sole self, this distant watching, ever a half step outside the common body?

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