by Marc Hudson
Stories about the making of poems are always somewhat fictional. This is not the result of purposeful deception, but of the flaws of memory, the inability of facts, and, especially, one’s more fluid intuitions, to adhere to the conscious mind.
“Helen’s Tears” was written in the late winter of 2003, begun a month or so after our son, Ian’s, death. By that time it was evident that President George W. Bush and his advisors were determined to lead our nation into war against Iraq. Like many that winter, I considered this a tragic decision that would result in thousands of unnecessary deaths. As a father who had recently lost a son, it was not difficult for me to imagine the grief that many parents would soon be feeling in both America and Iraq. Out of protest and out of sorrow, I wrote this poem.
Our son, Ian, died at 19. He had profound cerebral palsy, which had left him quadriplegic, though mentally he was gifted. He was the age of some of those young soldiers who would soon die. And he himself was a sort of soldier, clear-eyed, courageous, and with a great sense of humor that rescued him from self-pity.
So the poem begins with a remembrance of Ian’s burial in the early January snow and concludes by recalling that scene: the coffin, the imagery suggests, is like a funeral ship being launched into the breakers. It echoes an image from the beginning of Beowulf, the ship burial of Scyld Scefing.
The bulk of the poem narrates, briefly, the process of war and its consequences. I did not invent the detail of a shroud being pinned over Guernica: in February of 2003 when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell testified at the UN Security Council in favor of our imminent declaration of war, a blue curtain had been hung before the tapestry reproduction of Guernica just outside the chamber. It struck me then, and it still does, as an unintentional admission of guilt on the part of the Bush Administration.
There follows the surreal sequence of “the human dust” rising over Baghdad and circulating with the high winds flowing east across the planet. I have no idea if that is meteorologically accurate, but I believe it is accurate elegy. As a Christian, I believe the human community is woven together across the planet, and that the planet is one vast, miraculous biosphere, each organism linked to every other. So it is now and will be forever. And so the beautiful snow that would later fall in Indiana, I imagined, would carry news, even dust, from the catastrophe in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq.
That is not so much a mystical as an ecological insight. Suddenly, as I composed that part of the poem, I remembered what I had learned in a freshman chemistry class at Georgetown University forty years before. Professor Baker was lecturing us about the properties of the water molecule. He told us that when you drink a glass of water, it is not statistically unlikely that it would contain a molecule from the tears of Helen of Troy. Such is the enduring integrity of tears. That memory also struck a chord because my wife’s name is Helen.
And so I come to the end of the poem and my pronouncement about war. If you are a veteran reading this poem, I don’t blame you for rejecting my declaration. But some, unfortunately, will know that for a mother or a father who has lost a child in war, or in its aftermath, my assertion is often true.
The second poem from East of Sorrow, “There is an Ancient Light,” is its final and most recently composed poem. Its story is brief. In the summer of 2015, a few months after teaching my last class at Wabash, Helen and I drove out to Santa Fe to visit our daughter. We rented a small casita on Vuelta Place—one that would easily qualify as a tiny house. But its courtyard was spacious and beautiful, arranged with pots of hollyhocks, spirea, and penstemons. Nearby, a fountain plashed into a basin. In its depths drifted a few somnolent golden carp. The sunlight in Santa Fe is especially brilliant and abundant. So, impressionist that I am, it was often my study. I would sit at a small table by our casita door and write for an hour or so each morning, and occasionally, evenings after dinner. I tried, more than usual, to be the amanuensis of those moments in that particular spot. I may owe some debt to the Spanish Modernist, Jorge Guillen, who had a theory of “the patina of things,” the poem as a sort of distillate of essences, as I understand it. This poem came to me toward the end of our stay, a valedictory study of that late light and its gifts.
East of Sorrow is available at the Wabash College Bookstore. Copies are also on sale at the Carnegie Museum in Crawfordsville and at Von’s Bookshop on Chauncey Hill in West Lafayette. The book can also be ordered online from its publisher, Red Mountain Press.
Marc Hudson is Professor Emeritus of English at Wabash.