Mourning and the mosaic: 1

It’s been more than two months since the death of my father, the person who, alongside my mother and my partner and my child, was at the centre of my life in a loving if not always harmonious interrelation (he is now, it would seem, the quintessence, or fifth element, in our family). In addition, as perhaps only our parents can be, he remains at the heart of my sense of identity as father, husband, son.

I’ve passed through and returned to some of the grieving processes, if not yet others, and am still very gradually coming to terms with what I’ve come to think of, in MacDiarmid’s phrase from ‘On a Raised Beach’, as the ‘inoppugnable reality’: the absolute fact of his absence. Having dreaded and anticipated this loss with all the obsessiveness of the craven, it was oddly straightforward to be in the frightening zone itself, where all the terrible things in this life happen to you without any of the usual comforting illusions.

When the final phone call came, I was terrified; but by the time we reached the hospital, I’d become calm. Evidently, I’d actually known it was coming and had, without telling myself, somehow prepared. It is fitting that you’re there to help your father die, that you see it happen. How you feel about it is, in the event if nowhere else, not important. But I felt peace that he was at peace, and relieved that he was relieved of his suffering.

The first month was spent in the ritual of mourning and burying and ordering. I remember how, on the weekend he died, Debbie and Izzie and I obsessively cleaned my parents’ house, just as I’d promised him in the hospital it would be cleaned for his return, while my mother sorted out papers. Every now and then I’d break down, like the moment when I was hoovering in his tiny cramped ‘office’ and caught a glimpse of an old familiar photo of him in the Merchant Navy, young and hale and smiling.

We left normal time, as at times of festival, or as children do as soon as we release them from our schedules, and entered a period that felt limitless, a duration rather than a time. The ritual is not about joy or grief, although it occurs at their common pitch. It is about a process that will not sit in normal time, which therefore we must be steered through by a governed set of actions. The only important element is that they succeed each other, not when they do so.

The second month was taken up by an attempt to respond to ‘real life’, as it likes to think of itself: the call to pick up duties and roles that had been set aside or taken on by supportive colleagues. Then there was the insistence by others with, whatever sympathy they felt, less empathy for the adjustment taking place, that I rejoin the Great Continuity, as I’d come to think of it. This being that pressure of guilts and desires that expresses itself through capitulation to the systems we enfold ourselves in, reluctantly or wholeheartedly paying lip service to or identifying with others’ goals, others’ timetables.

I’ve always thought of creativity as resisting the false consciousness of this continuity, and like many writers, have made room to subvert its grip through writing in all its stages, from the little games of social media, to the reclaiming of ‘procrastination’, capitalism’s guilt term, as day-dreaming: throwing off responsibilities to enter a consuming compositional space, whether for ten minutes or for days at a time. I’ve always accepted the need to find space for play – the drifting stroll, the cafe or bar, the lingering lunch, the cinema or gallery, the discursive workshop which may contain wine.

The only thing was, I couldn’t concentrate. Writing was reduced to a sort of grief diary of a few sentences every now and then. I couldn’t even play: for weeks, no matter how I reminded myself he wouldn’t want me to mope, or that he shared the same black sense of humour, the sort of transgressive turning over of phrase and imagery that I use social media for just felt inappropriate.

This stasis was compounded by the fact I’m currently living parallel lives that are constantly being interrupted by each other and their own actualities. This occurs simultaneously in terms of geography – weekdays in Newcastle, weekends in Dundee – and vocation: the creative/academic divide. I’d set this up for mixed motives: partly to write, partly to be with him and my mother as his health worsened. But each infuses and confuses all the others. And each contains its own subsets, any of which can claim momentary or longer dominance over all the other headings.

In Dundee, I should be working on my McGonagall novel and/or on the Makarship, but I am always dealing with my father’s death, with my own grief and with my mother’s. In Newcastle I should be focussing on my teaching, but always the nagging processes and politics of my admin responsibilities rear up, and my family life and other relationships too must engage with how my own absences in Dundee affect my duties as husband and father and friend.

Into both of these scenarios the usual agendas of the freelance – readings, reviews, projects, residencies – still have to be woven. And underlying those intermittent actions, underlying all the rest with their uneven, demanding binaries, is the poetry, which goes on happening – now slowly, now urgently – despite and because of grief, being a condition which must seek the events of composition and revision and discussion and publication and performance to make itself manifest.

Without the poetry few of my other duties would find much basis in who I appear to be, nor would I be much interested in pursuing them. The way in which I am a teacher or literary person would rapidly lose meaning for me, whether that loss of meaning mattered or didn’t matter to those employing or expecting work from me. My main duty, then, outside the familial and my attention to the process of mourning and memorialising my father, is protecting that creative basis.

But what had happened was my mourning process had become a sort of tipping point. Grief is exhausting: when you’re experiencing it, it’s physical, overwhelming. When you’re released from it, it’s always under parole: you either feel it hovering, or any forgetting is soon sharply countered by the pang of memory, with its reliving and its involuntary guilt. Any task took three times as long: the emotional steeling (which would distend any practical preparation); the action (usually simple enough once I’d got going); and the weary collapse into aftermath.

What is gradually happening by way of recovery is interesting to me not just emotionally, but professionally, as part of that self-study in the psychology of creativity you are always conducting. (In this, despite all the indulgences of egotism, the self is just the most convenient subject, as well as one you have some commitment to studying.)

You need to know how you write in order both to write with greater self-awareness, and to teach with greater acuity, checking your own processes against those of your students, who are no more able to learn in a dispassionate mode than you should teach in a detached, empirical manner. Everyone is involved, implicated, altering, or no-one gets the chance to be challenged, to change and grow.

And what is happening is predictably ironic: those activities which are overlooked or actively denigrated have come to my (partial) rescue. Social media, both social and anti-social drinking, and plain sitting doing nothin, man, nothin, have gradually helped me string words together on a scale and with an integrity I was struggling to achieve. It’s early days, but what I like to think of as the three estates of the imagination: the poetic, the narrative and the critical, have all begun to stir, to pick up old matters and to conceive of new.

The mode is incremental: mosaic rather than Mosaic. Instead of the all-encompassing lists of the law-giver, it’s the accumulation of tesserae that means some portion of a picture can be conceived of, and therefore the larger scheme can be guessed at and sketched out.


About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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One Response to Mourning and the mosaic: 1

  1. The clarity of this post does not surprise me at the same time as it astonishes me. My experience is that grief is so heavy, like moving away from a strong magnetic field and being irregularly drawn back to it involuntarily. (Too many adverbs.)

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