Sometimes insomnia has its rewards. In this case there were two.
When I woke up at 1 am last night and had trouble falling back to sleep, I started reading another Inspector Lynley mystery by Elizabeth George. Early on, one of Lynley’s friends is repeating the mantra “Send my roots rain,” as she struggles with an impending difficult reunion with her husband. She only identifies the line as “the final words” in “Hopkins’ entire sonnet,” whose “fourteen lines of supplication” she’d also been reciting daily for the past week. I surmised that she was talking about Gerard Manley Hopkins because the line resonated with his “sprung rhythm.”
I got out of bed to look for my copy of Hopkins’ poems. The task was not simple because, aside from the fog in my brain, I’ve had the book for close to 60 years and the print on the spine of the dust jacket has faded. Going by the size and color of the book, I found it. And the sonnet.
It is one of his “terrible sonnets,” written towards the end of his short life, opening with a quote from the Latin version of Jeremiah Chapter 12. Not surprising for a Jesuit priest. Then, Hopkins renders Jeremiah into his English verse.
Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
My first reaction was how appropriate Jeremiah is for what’s going on in this country and this world today. How frustrating today’s headlines about the pending triumph of the enemies of women’s rights over their own bodies.
The rest of the poem is more personal, as Hopkins struggles with a sense of the futility of his life’s work.
… birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
He ends with a plea for life-giving rain.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
May the rain of lovingkindness nourish us today.
Reading Hopkins again reminded me of a poem that helped me in processing my grief after Laura’s death. As much as I mentioned that poem in my personal notes on grief, I never mentioned it in any blog post, not even as a coda to the story at the end of this post, which I did in this conclusion.
The Laura who said “You’re doing this for me” was not the same Laura who said “Sometimes.” And the Laura who died in her sleep on a Saturday morning more than a month after “Sometimes” was not the same Laura. We have this image of the dying person as the patient, the sufferer, the subject who endures through the process of death. Not so. During those last two months, Laura changed along with the bodily processes that brought her life to an end. My goal was for Laura to die knowing that she was loved. Which Laura was I talking about? The goal was futile. The Laura who felt and recognized my love one day would not be the Laura who died.
Despite my questions about a self that persists over time, there are continuities between the dying Laura who said “Sometimes” and the Laura with whom I lived for 15 years. The first time I told her “I love you,” she told me later she thought it was a “guy thing.” After she read the first love poem I wrote for her, the Ph.D. in comparative literature proceeded to tell me why it wasn’t such great poetry. Her reactions to sentimental blarney did not change much in the 15 years between these statements and “Sometimes.” In neither case was there any intent to be hurtful, just truthful.
We think of love as an activity, as not being an idea. A verb, more than a noun. But how frequently is that “love” directed at an idea, as opposed to the reality of the person we say we love. I set myself up for “Sometimes” by embracing the idea that I would save Laura from feeling that she was dying alone and unloved. I have no cause for complaint or for feeling sorry for myself about “Sometimes.” My question that evoked her answer was all about me.
As Gerard Manley Hopkins advises the young child named Margaret who is grieving over a death:
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.