With participants from around the world, the Boston Marathon is an international event, and so the tragedy there is both local and global. And there was violence in other places this week, a terrible series of car bombs in Iraq, and explosions in Mogadishu, which occur regularly and do not receive the attention they deserve. My heart is heavy as I imagine the grief of others and struggle to feel my own.
Many hopeful messages have circulated. The intentions behind these stories are good and are surely helping some people. I especially appreciate the story of Carlos Arredondo, a peace activist who had already lost both of his sons, one in Iraq and one to suicide, and who helped to save some of the wounded in Boston.
But as blogger Jan Wilberg points out, it might be too soon to barrel ahead and “rush to the healing station.”
Don’t get me wrong – the positive stories have value; among other things, they can help people to absorb the shock, to begin to comprehend the incomprehensible.
But it is also important to grieve. These violent acts were not inevitable, and there is no justification for death from a bomb attack. But when people die, not only anger but grief becomes a necessary part of life, a rational response to loss. Grieving rites exist in various forms throughout the world but the recognition of loss always seems to be there. We grieve the loss of others through formal rituals, which in part define us as humans.
This impulse to gloss over grief is especially troubling given that the updated DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which sets the cultural standard for how mental health is defined in much of the Western world, now encourages grief to be categorized as a mental illness rather than a normal human response.
The change has sparked much criticism and debate, but the result is clear: just as the ravenous beauty industry has turned aging into an unnatural horror requiring treatment, now the misguided arbiters of sanity appear to be doing the same with bereavement. Instead of recognizing grief as part of what makes us human, mental health practitioners will be encouraged to treat it as an illness, which could encourage a cultural stigma around grieving.
Considering the violence throughout the world this week, I remember a haunting poem by Louise Glück called “Vespers.” Glück has written several poems with this title; this one airs a grievance to a distant God over a failed tomato crop. Her spare, elegant language is impressive:
In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
I think I should not be encouraged to grow
tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold
the heavy rains, the cold nights that come
so often here, while other regions get
twelve weeks of summer. All this
belongs to you: on the other hand,
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows. I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible
for these vines.
The poem is not about violence but about the possibilities of grief, what happens when someone grieves a loss. It is firmly rooted in the tradition of Job, a virtuous Old Testament character who loses everything and struggles to comprehend the injustice of his misfortune. Like Job, the speaker here laments a material loss that brings about a larger crisis of faith in whatever metaphysical force is believed to control the mundane world. The speaker has failed to cultivate fruit from the earth granted to her and questions the deity’s indifference to her labor. And this leads her to suspect that this particular god might not be omniscient after all, might not finally understand “how much terror we bear.”
The grief in this poem is different from that brought on by the recent tragedies of senseless violence. Yet for many people in the world, crop failure can be as deadly as roadside bombs, if less sudden. Disasters like these bring crises both practical and metaphysical, making people question their beliefs, like Glück’s speaker who begins to doubt the divine power she addresses.
And that’s one reason I find this poem so remarkable in this moment: it poses as a harmless complaint about a failed garden, but if we pay attention we can see that it is making much larger claims on us.
It asks us to notice that for many people, a small crop can mean the difference between survival and death.
It reminds us that grief is not unnatural or a luxury. It is not a weird disease or a Gucci bag you wish you could afford, but an inevitable part of life, because loss is inevitable, a reality that the DSM-V is increasingly making a debatable proposition. Some people must now challenge authority for the right to simply grieve.
And on my reading, authority is what the poem finally challenges as well: if we take time to grieve, to voice our sorrow, we too might begin to question authority, like the bizarre imperative to stifle normal emotion. And then we might also begin to question other types of authority, like the roots underlying the patterns of violence in the U.S. and around the world. Courageous writers like Glenn Greenwald are addressing such questions.
Or we could just forget about all that and try to feel happy again.
Maybe some people don’t hesitate to question authority in times like these whether they grieve or not. Maybe some people think art and especially poetry are frivolous and irrelevant to any of this. But I do not read this poem as a frothy sound bite, a feel-good mantra of “grief (not greed) is good.” For me it is a potent reminder to slow down, to claim the right to grieve, to begin to question what is going on, and how and why we respond as we do.
There will be time for hope and strength. For now, Glück brings a message in a bottle on the vital kinship between grief in art and in life.