As is my custom on two or three Christian holidays in the year, I share today a poem that I think has particular resonance for me in the context of an important day to my faith tradition. I have tried, as usual, to select a poem that I think will speak to people from other traditions, or having no particular connection to faith at all—in fact, this Good Friday, my poem is not particularly Christian at all. And in talking about it, I’ll try to say some things that I think might resonate with anyone, in addition to things that may make sense only to other people in my broadly-defined community of faith (and probably one or more things that make sense only to me). For today’s poem, I’ve picked the work of a very well-regarded poet from the Pacific Northwest (my neck of the woods)—Tess Gallagher—specifically a short poem she wrote entitled “Wake”:
“Three nights you lay in our house.
Three nights in the chill of the body.
Did I want to prove how surely
I’d been left behind? In the room’s great dark
I climbed up beside you onto our high bed, bed
we’d loved in and slept in, married
There was a halo of cold around you
as if the body’s messages carry farther
in death, my own warmth taking on the silver-white
of a voice sent unbroken across snow just to hear
itself in its clarity of calling. We were dead
a little while together then, serene
and afloat on the strange broad canopy
of the abandoned world.”
Gallagher’s poem is clearly referencing, on one level, the death of her husband, the famous author of short stories, Raymond Carver. But I think the emphasis on three-ness, especially the three days dead, are adding an intentional layer of Christ imagery that I’ll talk about later on, which may explain why something about this poem catches hold of me today in particular.
There’s a loveliness to this poem on so many levels, despite the deeply sad setting and what I think are obviously very raw emotions for Gallagher even as she looks back at these days from a distance. One of the things that draws me in is the ambiguity of the language: are the three nights “in the chill of the body” a reference to Carver’s three days lying in state? Or is it Gallagher whose days are caught in the “chill” of this cold form, incapable of tearing herself away? Is her proving she’s been “left behind” a reference to her keeping his body in the house, or is her climbing into bed a strangely inverted way of proving this, creating the most intimate of moments in order to prove to herself that intimacy has been lost? Even the poem’s title is a cipher: a prosaic reference to this as a kind of “wake” like that practiced in many communities (often Catholic families, I think?), a shouted admonition to herself to snap out of the dark reverie she is in, a hopeless plea to her lost love to turn this eternal sleep into something more human and temporary? The way we take these little moments certainly affects the way the poem delivers its message—and in some ways alters the message itself entirely.
For the non-religious—and for those people of faith whose beliefs about the world do not encompass the idea of a personal afterlife or resurrection—it seems to me the poem is mainly intended. It offers a vision of death that is, however remote and in some ways unsettling, more a traveler’s passage than a snuffing-out, yet without giving in to any impulse to describe where the passage takes us or what that means. Carver, lying there dead, can still for a time inhabit his house and his marriage-bed, cold but still bodily present. Gallagher feels her life drawn out of her into something spare and far away—the icy beauty of that field of frost, and her voice going out via his body into some vast, echoing space. But that drawing out is not terrifying to her: in a way, it comforts her, as she and Carver go those first few steps into death together. Somehow grieving and dying become one in that placid image of them afloat and at peace, like lilies in a springtime pond, like cosmic bodies gently adrift in the universe. The world sinks beneath them and yet simultaneously bears them up. It is abandoned but not empty. It is a strange place to which Carver no longer need accommodate himself, and to which Gallagher will return changed, once she rises from that cold embrace. There are only a few non-religious or areligious poems that give me a sense of death’s inhuman loveliness, and this is one of them (Swinburne’s “Garden of Proserpine” is another). I hope that, whatever it means to you, it provides you with a sense of comfort about that ultimate frontier to which all of us are borne.
Today, of course, for someone identifying as a Christian (as I do), contemplation of death is particularly important. What it means to die, and what it might have meant for someone undying to, inexplicably, die. What it means if death is no longer an end, but instead the opening of a doorway into some other place. To me, there is more comfort in the poem than Gallagher herself may see or have intended. She forces herself to recognize the death of a loved one by staying with him far past what a medical professional would deem “the end”. She responds to death with love, and does not even deny the physical connection between her and her absent husband, wrapping her arms around him one last time. I think of the cold form of a broken man being carried down from the hill of execution. Based on the accounts we have, we think most of his friends were gone, but that some few still remained. His mother was there. Did they hold him close, any of them? Did Mary wrap her arms around her dead son and wonder why the angel had lied to her, promised her a triumphant redeemer and yet delivered only a man condemned by his own people to die in ignominy? Did John, the disciple he loved, wonder where love could go when the loved one passed into death’s arms? When the enigmatic Joseph of Arimathea lifted the body to place him in a rich man’s tomb, did he remove his fine robes and rings first, to better feel the chill of a fallen Messiah’s stopped blood just once before rolling a stone between them? I wonder. Surely they felt, in their own ways, a grief as deep and profound as Gallagher’s. That night, after lighting the Sabbath candles, I wonder if any of them lay quietly in bed, arms out and face upwards, envisioning themselves adrift and calm on death’s waves with the cold form of Jesus nearby. I hope they did.
For resurrection to mean anything to a church founded on it, we have to confront death, I think. Certainly, for me, if I don’t really engage with what it was like that Good Friday evening, that Holy Saturday morning and all that long afternoon, Easter morning feels superficial, excessively cheery. Whatever it means to rise again, first we must fall into that cold, dark place, in order to feel the rising. I am glad for poems like Gallagher’s that remind me how to look with both eyes at death and not rush past it into whatever comfort the ideas of new life and Heaven bring. Christianity is often tarred with the brush of being too glib about death, too quick to see “oh, but Heaven will be wonderful” as an excuse for all Earth’s sorrows. I think there can be truth in that, and I want to avoid it for myself, if I can: I am grateful to Gallagher, and all the other writers who have walked right up to the edge of death and peered into it, for helping me see humanity and mortality with clear eyes and a serious heart.