A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
My son is seventeen years old, and he has a broken heart.
Of course I also had a broken heart when I was seventeen, but what does that matter? My son doesn’t want to listen to me reminisce about my own suffering. He doesn’t want to sit around mournfully comparing notes about people who did us wrong. It’s not that he disbelieves me, or shuns my advice, or is too embarrassed to imagine his mother as a tear-swollen teenager. But the past is not the present. I got over my broken heart, but he’s still in the middle of his; and telling a mourner that he’ll recover from his grief is like telling a woman in childbirth that she’ll recover from her agony. How can she understand you? She’s trapped in the throes of now.
Nonetheless, I keep offering my son useless advice, for like every adult I am always negotiating a double life—past and present, then and now. As the years pass, I become ever more tempted to treat the past as some sort of oracle. But in truth, the past itself—the vitality of the past, the past as the present—is lost to me. As E. L. Doctorow writes in his novel Billy Bathgate, “whatever it is as a splurge of being, as a loss, as a charge of the conviction of love stopping your heart like your execution, there is no memory in the brain, only the deduction that it happened and that time passed, leaving you with a silhouette that you want to fill in again.”
When I’m working with writers who are revising their poems, I often ask them to focus on verb tense. Are they using past tense all the way through the poem? Or have they suddenly shifted to present tense? What would happen if they rewrote the entire poem in past tense? In present tense? Always, the difference between the drafts is startling. In one version the poet is constructing a history. In the other she is inhabiting a moment.
Watching my son struggle through heartbreak has made me a voyeur of such inhabited moments. The position is terrifying. For as Alice Munro writes in her essay “Night,” “if you live long enough as a parent, you discover that you have made mistakes you didn’t bother to know about as well as the ones you do know about, all too well.” Today I’ve been prodding around in the dusty corners of my brain, trying to hunt down some of those parent mistakes I haven’t yet bothered to know about. Someone doesn’t love my child! How could this have happened? Where did I go wrong?
But such tedious dithering obscures the honor that I owe him. My son, not I, is doing the hard work of grief. “Heart’s fire,” writes the poet Denise Levertov, “breaks the chest almost.” At the age of twenty I lay in the dark in my narrow dormitory bed, weeping, weeping. It sounds melodramatic to declare that I was unable to imagine a future without this person who had left me. But it was simply a fact. The present had swallowed me up.
I once thought of submitting this essay to the New York Times’s “Modern Love column, but I realize now that I am not writing about modern love at all. My son’s anguish is the oldest story in the world. In the midst of recounting the moment when the adventurer Aeneas deserts Dido, queen of Carthage, the narrator of Virgil’s Aeneid pauses to remark, “Love, you tyrant! / To what extremes won’t you compel our hearts?” The question is both rhetorical and rueful. Despite their pathos, the lines are tinged with the comedy of experience. But Dido, cast off by her lover, can only live in the present. Without him, she “always feels alone, / abandoned, always wandering down some endless road, / not a friend in sight.” When my son stands in the kitchen and whispers to me, “I can’t do it. I can’t go to school and watch her walking through the hallways,” his suffering is as vast as history.
How did my own parents deal with a child’s heartbreak? As far as I can recall (and, granted, I wasn’t paying close attention to anything outside my own misery), they exuded a sullen wave of dismay. Yes, they hated my boyfriend—“he’s a jerk, we never liked him, you’re better off without him”—but even more they hated the fact that I was so obviously, abjectly, melodramatically in love. “Have some self-respect” was the message they were sending me. And despite their true affection and anxiety for me as a human being, that message largely meant “Respectable girls don’t act like this.”
Because heartbreak isn’t respectable. Our culture celebrates bravery and resilience, but brokenhearted people behave badly in public. Their suffering is painful to watch. It seems to lessen them in some way. They become ridiculous, weeping their giant tears. Shouldn’t they know better than to make such a spectacle of themselves? It doesn’t matter that most of us have suffered our own heartbreaks, that we recognize the grip of that grief. As public behavior, it is embarrassing.
In her novel The Waterfall, Margaret Drabble writes, “Looking back, it’s hard now to remember that I speculated so little about the real, the significant, the imminent future: I thought only in terms of days and hours, of presence and absence.” In the Aeneid, Dido’s solution was to stab herself atop her own funeral pyre. She was not able to speculate about the future. Isn’t it my task, as the mother of my son, to help him escape from such a cannibalistic present into at least a partial self-omniscience? How can I help him see his place within an arc of past, present, and future?
But I don’t know how to do this. Nor do I know how I got over my own heartbreak, except to wail about it and languish in it, and then gradually feel it seeping away from me. And if I think too hard about those ancient feelings, I realize that they’re not entirely gone. Heartbreak leaves a scar, and it aches, even thirty years later.
In his Abecadlo Milosza, Czeslaw Milosz writes about the inaccuracy of the past. “We cannot determine how it was in fact, no matter how hard we try. . . . In telling about an event we cannot avoid revising it.” We have a “need for fantasizing that is somehow inscribed in the language itself, and which draws us into the forest of fiction.” Perhaps this is why the private heartbreaks of our past, the epic heartbreaks of literature and song possess an elegance, even a nobility, that is invisible in the runny nose and puffy eyes of the real live teenage boy in my kitchen. This boy is not existing in language or in the forests of fiction but in the sloppy ugliness of the present.
Milosz recognized that disconnect, but nonetheless, like all of us, he succumbed to revision and fantasy. A later passage in Abecadlo Milosza recalls an outing with his grandparents:
I was, I think, eight years old. The old folks gossiped and entrusted me to a young girl, who was to show me the park. We walked along the paths, crossed some little bridges which had railings made of birch poles—I remember that well. Then it happened. I looked at her thin bare shoulders, the narrowness of her arms above the elbow, and an emotion I had never experienced, a tenderness, a rapture, unnamable, welled up in my throat. I had no idea that this is called love. I think she must have said something, explaining, but I said not a word, struck dumb by what had suddenly come over me.
In a certain way, I, too, have been struck dumb by love—a newer love, a different love: love for this soggy weeping young man, who was once an open-mouthed child asleep against my shoulder; love for this irreplaceable being who two decades ago was nobody at all—a breath, a thought, a fantasy. “A tenderness, a rapture, unnamable, wells up in my throat.” My son is seventeen years old, and he has a broken heart. And my task is to do nothing, nothing . . . only to let him cry. To honor his grief, I must accept its presence. For as Levertov explains:
To speak of sorrow
works upon it
moves it from its
crouched place barring
the way to and from the soul’s hall—
copyright 2015 Dawn Potter