Poetry Speaks to Pain

Early in 2002, I discovered in myself a great reserve of strength and faith. It carried me through an extremely difficult and painful period. The following extract is taken from the poem ‘Mythistorema’ by George Seferis (translation: Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard). It spoke loudly and clearly to me then and even now reminds me that I was, and am, not alone. Reading has always brought me great comfort even, and sometimes especially, while confronting me with my discomfort.

Sleep wrapped you in green leaves like a tree
you breathed like a tree in the quiet light 

in the limpid spring I looked at your face:

eyelids closed, eyelashes brushing the water.

In the soft grass my fingers found your fingers

I held your pulse a moment

and felt elsewhere your heart’s pain.
Under the plane tree, near the water, among laurel

sleep moved you and scattered you

around me, near me, without my being able to touch the whole of you —

one as you were with your silence;

seeing your shadow grow and diminish,

lose itself in the other shadows, in the other

world that let you go yet held you back.


Day 6 of 21: in London

in June 1995. I returned from living and working abroad and started teaching ESOL in my home town of Colchester; before becoming a student again myself. My first class was a group of Russian language teachers from the former East Germany, who were being ‘re-trained’ to teach English.

This three-week course will pass very quickly, I’ve a great team of colleagues and the students seem fine – though I’m not sure how happy I’d be if I were them, being ‘advised’ suddenly to switch from teaching Russian to teaching English. The first week passes in a sunny and breezy fashion; well, the weather does. Able to sit outside to finish re-reading ‘The Levant Trilogy’ while eating my lunch, I’m sometimes joined (silently) by students who feel lonely but don’t want to speak. We smile, nod at each other, then sit companionably awhile until it’s time to return to the classroom. Once there, I quickly find that seemingly innocuous grammar points can lead to instantaneous student catharsis.

For example, work on the third and mixed conditionals to express regret or nostalgia; well, I would take that back right now if I could. Truly. First student (after looking intently at her dictionary): ‘If I had known that my abortion would give me such sadness, I would never have listened to my husband’. Cue mini-group hug with friends and then tears. Lots. My emergency supply of tissues is quickly exhausted so I fall back on distributing my emergency supply of chocolate buttons. The last one of those eaten, another in the class volunteers: ‘I would have killed my sports coach if I had known he was doping me when I was a child. I’ve never been able to have children.’ Some students are visibly cheered at the thought of killing-any-random-piece-of-shit-who-ever-treated-me-badly, and smile with faraway looks in their eyes. Eerie silence descends and then the tears start again.

One of the women, realising that my emergency rations have been consumed, produces her own. She pulls a roll of toilet tissue and a tin of Quality Street from her bag. Chewing those toffees has a calming effect and definitely shuts us all up. We make a picture from the wrappers and I announce haughtily I don’t believe in having regrets, so let’s move on shall we? We do, just far enough. My ability to ‘make students cry’ becomes a badge colleagues make me wear for some time. Each course participant is asked to keep a diary; hopes that mine will use this document to keep trauma on the page are quickly dashed. They write about me. (1) If all teachers are like her, students must learn easily and with pleasure. (2) She is fantastic and humorous. (3) An energetic and lively woman with a sense of humour – very interesting. (4) Jane demands quite a lot, but we like this. (5) I’m sure she likes teaching and has good relations with all her students. (6) A charming, energetic young woman – her gestures and facial expressions are especially striking. In the meantime, classroom recollections of trauma become ones of pleasure, admittedly often illicit, but I feel we’re getting somewhere (and consuming less chocolate and fewer tissues).

I’ve signed up for a six-day working week, and on the sixth day we visit London as part of the group’s cultural orientation. Everyone boards the coach in good spirits; the day before we had the hottest June day for 20 years and we’re still talking about it as the temperature dips and the sky clouds over. Orientation over, we all go our separate ways to do our shopping-thing or our let’s-catch-up-with-old-friends-thing. Fun done, back at the coach I notice we’re one down. I ask her friends, who, initially, say they have no idea what’s happened but they’re sure she’s fine. We leave. By the time we’re back, I’ve been told that this woman has had a miscarriage in John Lewis on Oxford Street and that her ‘friends’ got her to St. Thomas. They were very reluctant to tell me anything, then almost blasé about the whole episode with no intention of staying with her overnight. I find this strange. I ring the relevant authorities to report the event and check all is well. Three days later, discharging herself from hospital, this woman has returned from London in a taxi and reappeared in class. Nothing is said. No catharsis needed here, move along please – oh, and by the way, say nothing to the husband who’s visiting next weekend. He didn’t know about the pregnancy. It’s day 9 of 21.


Room 45

My grandfather was 106 when he died on December 15 2013. Of course, he’d been around my whole life, while I’d been around exactly half of his. As he made it that far on the clock, many told me I should not be sad: ‘He had a good innings’. Indeed he did, better than the current men’s England cricket team (something that would have cheered him). Not enough to propel him into the top 10 of the UK’s oldest inhabitants (something that would have vexed him); but still, none too shabby. Undoubtedly, it was his time to go. He knew it, we knew it. He left before he passed his best before date. So, 22 years to the day that my grandmother (his wife) died, my sister and I held his funeral. The Reverend Peter Evans officiated non-officiously and very humanly. A small group of us then went to The King’s Arms where I drank whisky: ‘Because it’s what he would have wanted’. And that was that. Only it wasn’t and still isn’t.

In the weeks leading up to the funeral, my sister and I, together, took care of business. For the final week, we spent all day, every day together doing just that. Grandad’s belongings were moved out of his room at the residential care home where he’d lived for the previous 15 years. All the boxes, furniture, suitcases were stacked away. We went through everything. But nothing brought home that he’d gone more than finding that Room 45 was now home to Frank, not George. Keeping busy and drinking tea are the great British standbys in sad times. They always work for me. When they stop, what then? Well, after my sister left, I started crying because I missed her. By early Monday morning, in the bus on the way to the airport, I was crying proper. There was nothing to keep me busy and I had no tea.

You see, when you love someone, it doesn’t matter how old they are or where they are – what’s important is what they mean to you. That love, the one that always demands the present tense, that’s the real business to take care of.