Memories of loss, love, and manhood.
When I was fifteen, I returned home from a weekend in the mountains to learn that my closest childhood friend had died. The same night that I swam in a cold high lake, his body broke the windshield of his father’s Camaro. He had driven around a corner and lost control. Where the car slammed into a copse of poplar and oak, the hardwoods hardly looked affected.
And now my bitter hands chafe beneath the clouds
Of what was everything?
Oh, the pictures have all been washed in black, tattooed Everything…
Pearl Jam haunted my stereo that year, rigged up to a cassette tape with a wire coming out of it so that I could play the Compact Disc of Ten on repeat. All the photographs of Jason and me as children felt soaked in ink that left the joy they meant to document impossible to see. That was what “Black” meant to me then. I drove by those trees for months, each time looking for the stripped bark, until the owner of the property kindly cut them down. Their essence had become reminder.
It was hard to imagine life without him in it. In middle school, we had traded Tom Clancy novels before the Homeroom bell; copied each other’s programming homework, writing fireworks in BASIC; and boogie boarded through jellyfish at Myrtle Beach. Aside from his parents, everyone expected me to flatten out my feelings and move on from his death rather quickly, I think because we had recently drifted into different circles of friends. That happens. But, even if by then I played more basketball and he wrote more computer code, we would always be there for each other. Until one of us wasn’t.
I missed calling him on the phone, to share good news with him. Later, there came a day when I noticed that I hadn’t thought about him or death the whole day. But it was the day that I walked halfway to his house before remembering that he wouldn’t be in his room that upset me most.
I walked back home, upstairs to my room, and pulled a book of Wordsworth’s poems down from the shelf. I don’t remember my intentions or if I had any. There was a note from the author before “Surprised by Joy.” I was — and still am — drawn to the commentary that poets include with their published work. The note is probably what determined which poem I read, and it explained that “Surprised by Joy” concerns his daughter, Catherine, who had died the year before Wordsworth wrote the poem. It’s a Petrarchan sonnet with an elaborate rhyme scheme. It opens, like many of Wordsworth’s poems, with a spontaneous overflow of emotion,
Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
and the speaker turns to share his joy with his daughter,
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
having forgotten that she wasn’t there.
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind—
He tries to console himself with the idea that the strength of his love and devotion is what made him want to share with her in the first place.
But how could I forget thee?
But if his love is so strong, then how could he forget her? How could I forget what had happened to Jason, the Camaro, the trees? Yes, walking to his house was evidence of friendship, but wasn’t forgetting all the more damning.
Many years later, I was in the audience when MH Abrams gave a talk on reading poems aloud. For the better part of an hour, the eminent literary critic gave a close reading of several poems, including “Surprised by Joy.” Abrams unpacked the lines that upset me, saying that Wordsworth’s “how could I forget thee?” reflects the “deeply human paradox about grieving: time is a healer, but the very fact of the dimming of grief by time makes one feel guilty, as though it impugns the genuineness of the love.”
In those first six lines, Wordsworth took me through a range of emotions that no one else had explained was normal. From the adults in my life, I felt the pressure of flatness. But Wordsworth flipped from joy to grief to guilt in seconds.
—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.
The remaining lines circle back around to grief. When you forget that a friend has died, when you go to him to before remembering that he’s already gone, you relive his death. But it wasn’t grief that Wordsworth left me. Instead, I felt an invitation. His sonnet reassured me, a young reader separated by a century and an ocean, that I was not alone, that none of us who grieves and feels confused by grief is alone. Wordsworth reminded me of the alternative masculinity on display in the music that at the time we called Grunge. Eddie Vedder, Kurt Cobain, like Wordsworth, were making art from messy truths. From aloneness to community, through poetic alchemy, grief becomes a kind of joy.
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