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Michael Brennan

In absentia: Mourning and Friendship

This piece is 3,900 words or about 8 pages long

On Christmas Eve 1999, the sister of a friend met me at Heathrow airport. I had just left Prague after four months living there, and was planning on spending three weeks in Spain before flying home. I was surprised to see my friend’s sister waiting for me, and more surprised when she passed me her mobile phone and told me to call home. I’m not entirely sure of the sequence that followed, but I think I first spoke to my father who told me my eldest brother, David, had suffered a heart attack and died that afternoon. My family had organized an onward flight that would see me back in Sydney on Boxing Day, skipping Christmas day entirely thanks to the peculiarities of air travel.

When I first heard the news that David was dead, the reaction was purely physical. My legs came away from underneath me and I cried violently. I had never experienced before, or indeed since, that particular violence. By the time I was on the train to Heathrow Terminal 1, a coldness had set in, leaving me to watch the nearby travellers, each moving within their own worlds, between worlds and wrapped entirely in their own concerns. There was something shocking to me about this, as though the experience of this death (or the message of it at least) had shown me in one cold blow the distance, the gulf that exists between each of us at each and every moment. It was and is a terrible knowledge, one that I still cannot entirely grasp.

Death is, it seems, immeasurable and incomparable, each of us experiences even the same singular death of another in any number of ways, many of which can never be told, explained, touched by language. Death is not comparable. The experience of death that confronted me was and remains different to the experience faced by each member of my family and of David’s friends. Of that I have no doubt. Before David’s death I had lost people I loved — perhaps most closely, my maternal grandmother, and a friend and teacher who suicided. Each took its toll, introducing me to an awareness of death: its particular sense of loss and vanishing, anxiety and with the suicide especially, a sense of meaninglessness. My brother’s death had nothing to do with this awareness.

Mourning works a terrible logic. It is a monster, like Time, and akin to Death — perhaps a younger sibling — that devours and rebuilds only to devour again. For that, it is like poetry as well. Poetry is itself another monster, a murmur, as some philosophers would have it, between worlds, if not between the living and the dead, than between the possibilities of each. In some way, over the six months that followed my brother’s death, and since, it appeared to me that the world was vanishing, that the world was in a perpetual and visible state of disappearance, and had to be remade everyday. Everything seemed to fold away into its immediate presence and defy continuance and continuity. The blank, dull gaze of mourning seemed to deny a former existence, that way of seeing the rationale of one thing leading to the next, of cause and effect. As though, my brother’s death had erased time’s passage, as much as the trip home erased Christmas that year.

The perverse logic of mourning seemed that everyday, you had to experience some shade of the death again, so as to begin to forget. It was necessary to draw the dead back everyday — through denial, misperception, dream — so as to let the dead go. While four years have now passed, taking with them the lion’s share of disbelief, anger and even grief, that same sense remains, that same vanishing appears to continue, as though this monster — time, mourning, death — had always been just so, and it had taken one death, close to my blood, to clear my eyes.

Everyday in those first six or so months, it seemed necessary to mourn not simply David but the living as well. It became immediately apparent not simply that my parents would die, my brothers, my friends, but it was as though these many deaths had already come to pass, had always been so, as though David’s death had leveled time or made it stand on end. In some ways, his death forced me to witness the death we each inhabit, that grows within us as Rilke had it. All the while, was the ongoing disbelief in the death: the sightings of David a few seats ahead on the train home, driving past in a car, waiting to cross at the traffic lights; the waiting for a telephone call where I would hear his voice again, and time would re-form and start over, the absurd tic of his death given back to absurdity and meaning returned. All the while, he would be back in dreams, where nothing had happened, time continued on in an arrow, until that moment of dread, waking in the middle of the dream, knowing that the brother I talked to was dead in the real world, on the other side of waking. At first I found this horrifying and would scramble as quickly from the dream as possible, but then, when I realized that was all that was left, I would try to sit with my dead brother and talk for as long as the dream would allow, for as long as it might last. I would take these conversations back to my waking life and find comfort in them, wait and hope for the next time he would wander into a dream and sit awhile.

Mourning, like poetry, is a form of madness. Mourning is a madness of the strangeness of the everyday; the strangeness that life continues. Poetry is a madness of and for the everyday, the strangeness of the paths Being follows on its way through language, how it continues, the dark corners it seeks out, the echoes it listens to and plays with. Mourning and poetry both offer a colder, harsher experience of the world, both push you at times into new and uncomfortable ways of being in the world. Both open in an unanswerable question. They can be hyper-dense, a black hole, that draws the world in and turns the world out as the unknown, a black chuckle, the strangely beautiful, nebula from which we might form some passing meaning in the greater dark. Like poetry, mourning also offers moments of peace, of an experience of the world beyond the immediacy, the difficult presence, it seeks to reaffirm. As with the moments I found comfort talking with the dream of a brother I knew was dead, poetry and mourning alike offer a new world, a new way of being in the world, which does not deny the horror and inconsistencies, but couples brutality with grace, uncovers the impossible within the everyday, and seeks promise in the ludic as much as the lucid: being at once deeply within and outside the world, but most of all, of the world.

I want to turn to two works that cross-over this territory: of mourning, poetry and finally friendship. The first is a poem by the poet Charles Simic, the second a poem by Kevin Hart.

First Simic, from his collection of prose-poems, The World Doesn’t End:

Dear Friedrich, the world’s still false, cruel and beautiful...

Earlier tonight, I watched the Chinese laundry-man, who doesn’t read or write our language, turn the pages of a book left behind by a customer in a hurry. That made me happy. I wanted it to be a dreambook, or a volume of foolishly sentimental verse, but I didn’t look closely.

It’s almost midnight now, and his light is still on. He has a daughter who brings him dinner, who wears short skirts and walks with long strides. She’s late, very late, so he has stopped ironing and watches the street.

If not for the two of us, there’d be only spiders hanging their webs between streetlights and the dark trees.

I don’t want to intrude too far into this poem, into each of your readings of it (just now, having heard it, perhaps, for the first time). To me, it is a near-perfect piece of poetry: balancing tact and openness, being both subtle and accessible. There’s a lighthearted hubris to it, in addressing Friedrich (that it is Nietzsche is suggested in the first line, and substantiated in a later poem of the book) as a friend, and so joining, or continuing a conversation that stems to the last century and all those years before. Here is time set aside, the impossibilities of our world made possible: the murmur of literature, thought and experience coupling as poetry, forming an ordinary and possible transcendence. The scene is so clear-cut as to be transparent, yet it is inhabited by the quiet desperation, humble loneliness and love of the everyday: almost unfathomable things. One man at the end of day, the night scene, those long strides echoing somewhere outside of the poem, and time already crept away (‘late, very late’) into the pause of the father waiting, attending her return. There’s the watcher and the watched, and one level more, the watcher, the poet, watching all of that, and perhaps Friedrich or us, watching that too. Such a lot of watching and nothing doing! There’s the suggestion of midnight, the slight threat of the daughter’s absence, the mixture of love and anxiety in the waiting. And then there’s the attendant silence of the poem, the web cast between the shadows of words and the appearances and light they cast.

It’s all a lie. We know that, the readers; Simic knows and delights in that, the poet; even the Chinese laundry man seems a little uncertain, as though perhaps his daughter was only as much a figment of the poem as he is. O Poor ontology! Cruel ontology! How cruel to discover you exist only as such a dream: a gathering of metaphor and symbol, or worse, a pastoral scene, or even crueler, bricolage. There is nothing to be learnt here, only a moment to watch, a sense of continuity given in a brief moment detached from the rest, given leaning into a future that never arrives, and an end that is never finished. This was for me so much the experience of mourning, and is so much the experience of poetry. I wonder if the brother I dreamt ever felt that uncertainty, of being dreamt, while I found a way without thought, to exist without the past, present and future that seemed destroyed in his death. I wonder if some guise of me enters into his dreams, if perhaps on the other side of that absence it is he who is dreaming me.

How beautiful are the lies we tell ourselves about the past, present and future. I wish too it was a dreambook, a volume of foolishly sentimental verses, but, like Simic’s poet, I choose not to look too closely, simply lean across words and wait. How deftly does absence cut across those lies of continuity and meaning and give them as a singular instant, all enveloped in the other? How deftly can words give that absence, allow that vanishing world to briefly, almost intangibly, be made present in its vanishing, to bind our world with the absences that inhabit it?

Strange that something — be it poetry or mourning — so entangled with other worlds should finally give us this one most clearly, at the cost of the others. How quickly the dead are gone into us, sealed away into their only after-life, the one of our memory, the echo of laughter shared, the quiet bonds and history of friendship that slips discreetly beyond life and death. Curiously, in recent years, my feet feel firmer on the earth, the air warmer as though with shared heat, knowing that I have the good misfortune to be living my brother’s afterlife, that all though gone, he remains in this difficult absence that friendship allows. It strikes me, with a more subtle violence than the initial experience, that each of those separate worlds I first experienced on the train to Heathrow 1, are bound by these shared absences, this gulf. While language may not bridge this gulf, there’s the dim, nascent sense at times, that language offers some part of a way through, accommodates this passage through absence in its attendant absences, the vanishing that it, like death, performs. How strange that now, so long since that first act of monstration in a cave, where a human first drew the self into an image and from which we might trace the first hints and lines of language, that the gift of which was once incantory, magical — that of language, where to speak was to make real, make appear — might now find its grace, its ability to secure and save us in its gift for disappearance, for vanishing.

Kevin Hart’s poem ‘The Room’ offers a glimpse of this, and may be a good point at which to begin to end. In eight simple lines, Hart opens language around absence:

The Room

It is my house, and yet one room is locked.
The dark has taken root on all four walls.
It is a room where knots stare out from the wood,
A room that turns its back on the whole house.

At night I hear the crickets list their griefs
And let an ancient peace come into me.
Sleep intercepts my prayer, and in the dark
The house turns slowly round its one closed room.

Here the images of the poem are dedicated to the unrepresentable that inhabits the poem: the house, the extraneous noise of the cricket’s grief, the prayer, peace and sleep of the poem, close around the closed room. The room is given as essential and unknowable, a mystery at the centre of things, which defies the ownership so clearly stated in the first line, and displaces the speaker. It is difficult, knowing Hart’s long study into phenomenology, not to draw from the development of the image of the house a resonance with Heidegger’s dictum that ‘language is the house of Being’, and so perhaps to trace a path to the notion that the living and language share this central abiding mystery, that at the centre of each absence dwells and defies and denies ownership, property, mastery. A mystery that haunts being and language equally, that dispossesses us, that waits, closed, as a promise and a threat, a blessing and a wound. There is an interesting note to this poem, which has given me up to its mystery on countless readings of the poem. Several years after its first publication, Hart received a letter from a South American thanking him for the poem. In the letter the man stated that ‘The Room’ had sustained the man during a period of several months detention and torture at the hands of the local military. It seems that there is no knowing where language will lead, what will be saved by words or how a poem is to be read. It is difficult to estimate the political charge of a poem, its possible impact outside of the context, the world in which it originated. To my mind, this illustrates, at least a little, the idea of poetry I am trying to grasp through an understanding of mourning, of absence and the gulf that exists between each of us. Poetry is a form of relation, it is at its best an act of friendship without bounds, without an object of desire or intent, a binding beyond self and other, absence and presence, where each slips away. Elsewhere, Hart once wrote that ‘every word said well is praise’. Equally, every word said well — that is, chosen and weighed with care if not a love for the unknowable, for what is beyond it, for the absence it contains and that contains it — offers the possibility of relation, of friendship through the absences that exist at the heart of both being and language.

That a poem moves beyond its origin, its world, in each reading is a simple fact; that it can in turn convey, even briefly, the shades of common experience, that it can through the absence in which it works not arrest but affirm the vanishing of our worlds, celebrate and embrace ‘an ancient peace’ in that vanishing, is a slippery miracle, as soon grasped as vanished, only appearing in its disappearance as Maurice Blanchot noted. As with that absent daughter who’s still not home and the room that will remain forever locked, and — in a different realm — as with that brother I will never see again, absence underwrites the experience of the world, language and poetry, it gives experience over to patience, to the unexpected, to the miracle and possibility of being here, in the world and being of the world, it offers the chance of connection between worlds, of friendship before and beyond the horizon of the next moment’s vanishing.

This paper was presented at the Association of Studies in Australian Literature 2004 Conference. I would like to sincerely thank Professor Elizabeth Webby for presenting the paper for me in my absence. It is dedicated to her with warmth and friendship. A number of the ideas presented here were adapted from my reading and misreading of Maurice Blanchot’s and Jean-Luc Nancy’s work.

Michael Brennan photo

Michael Brennan

Michael Brennan was born in Sydney in 1973. His first collection, The Imageless World (Salt, 2003) was short-listed for the Victorian Premier’s Award for Poetry and won the Mary Gilmour Award. Brennan received the 2004 Marten Bequest for Poetry and is the Australian editor of He currently lives in Nagoya, Japan where he is a lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies and Foreign Languages, Nagoya Shoka Daigaku.

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