Since death is so inevitable a part if life, it is not surprising that the elegiac mood should play its great role in poetry.
From Milton’s Lycidas and Gray’s Elegy, down through Shelley’s Adonais and Tennyson’s In Memoriam, to Wilfred Owen’s poignant laments for the First World War dead, elegies rung like passing knells through the tradition, and no poet really feels his work is complete unless he has plunged into the shadows and written something to hinder the forgetting of a dying friend or hero.
Admittedly we do not all possess the somber art that produces a good elegy, but usually, at some crisis in our lives, we try.
Frances Itani’s A Season of Mourning is a slight (36 pages including blank ones and Molly Lamb Bobak’s illustrations) and wholly elegiac book — poems addressed to a sister and a friend who died within a year of each other.
Death and dying always provoke recollections among the survivors, and much of the effect of these poems comes from their juxtaposition of scenes from a lost and romantically perceived childhood with the grimy physical aspects of dying.
They are grave poems, projecting the recognition rather than the acceptance that we live, we die, and perhaps we survive a little in the memories of those who still see us as we were, at our best.
In the end, there is nothing, really, to say,
so I stand in the unspeakable silence, staring down
while long-tailed mockingbirds
wing purposely to the woods
while rodent eyes of squirrels
rivet from the trees.
Lives go on, even if ours do not: the age-old consolation.
Molly Lamb Bobak’s bunches of flowers, so like the ragged bouquets one sees sometimes in the village churchyards, and reproduced in grey tones, are almost perfectly appropriate illustrations.