My Sister, Susanna

Here are two sections of Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:

Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.

Is this poem susceptible to the question “What does it mean?” Or can we only answer, “It is”?

The second section seems the more beautiful to me: it summons that moment when you can still hear, or think you hear, the music that has faded into silence or to a dying resonance that is neither silence nor music. (Singing under Fenno Heath was a history of such moments, particularly in Renaissance motets, where he could extend the final “N” of the last “amen,” transforming it from a sung syllable to a hum as he circled his hands towards each other, began pinching thumbs and forefingers together to close down the “N” as his arms spread to their outstretched reaches, the fingers and thumbs pinching ever closer until, at his arms’ fullest extent, they met, or didn’t meet, and the sound of the humming “N” did or didn’t decay to nothingness, and we were transfixed. And have been these many years.)

Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women

In the Istanbul Archeological Museum, there is a beautiful sarcophagus unearthed in Sidon, southern Lebanon. The sarcophagus dates from the 4th century BCE, about the time that Alexander the Great defeated the Persians and seized control of Sidon.

All the pictures in today’s gallery below show elements of what’s called the Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women. Some of these lovely portraits would not be difficult to title—The Woman Gathering into Herself, The Woman Supporting Great Weight, The Exhaled Resignation, The Farewell, Heart.

Still, I’d like to question the Wallace Stevens’ forebear who carved this work. Did he ask his models to remember some particular grief? Did he pose them according to his own memories? Did he work solely from imagination? Do these portraits interact, or is each sorrow private and unenterable? Is there a progress through stages of grief? Should we begin at one portrait and walk round the sarcophagus like some Stations of the Cross? Does the tomb depict Dickinson’s “First chill, then stupor, then the letting go”?

After grief, life is never the same. Carver, is it the sensation of grief—the hammer and chisel of it—that so changes us? Or is it the helpless knowledge?

Helpless: Three lines before the end of King Lear, the Duke of Albany responds to his king’s death with so commonplace a truism that he and Shakespeare should be embarrassed by its banality: “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” But ah, what is the sensation of grief? What do we feel and what are the words to express it? Not one of these carved women will tell us. For all this mourning, the tomb is a silent place. The thumb and index finger have met and the voices have decayed.

2 thoughts on “My Sister, Susanna

  1. Lovely Dad, just lovely. For some reason, these images remind me of that book you recommened, IN WOMEN’S COUNTRY. These women all KNOW something, feel EVERYTHING. Even as their men go on blithely and brutally, they are the ones who carry the weight and own the history of what has been done.

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