Leave Taking

[Last fall, I posted the first part of this note after visiting the Archeology Museum in Istanbul. That posting follows straight on to today’s note form Athens.]

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.

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.)

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.

Each of the several panels holds the portrait of a mourning woman, each different from its sisters. Some of these 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. Fenno’s thumb and index finger have met and the voices have decayed. . . .


Yesterday, I returned to some old friends in the Athens Archeological Museum—the grave markers from cemeteries that lined the route from the city to the port at Piraeus. The same questions I asked in Istanbul return, but now a more general ethos obtains. The Sidon sarcophagus is a lovely singleton. These Athenian grave markers—sizeable, individual in their grief but thematically common—are so numerous that the ancient world seems reduced to its own necropolis of unknowable human desire. In these portraits, how do we tell the dead from the living who say farewell? How is it that leave-taking elicits the same expressions of grief from the living and the dead? Why is sorrow equal on both sides of the last breath? Should we consider the dying woman’s last world-wise glance at her jewelry box or her attendant’s generous gesture to hold it open? Why should the young sailor gaze out so longingly at the sea that drowned him?

Poor Albany, not for the first time, is filled with wishful thinking. Dickinson has it right: the letting go is, so silently, all.

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