Poetry and the power of grief

Moments of reflection can be thin on the ground. Whether due to pressures of work or family or the panicked ticking-off of an ever-lengthening to-do list, it’s rare that you can sink into a state of contemplation without the assistance of psychotropic drugs. At least, that’s how it is in the unbeautified hinterland beyond the west end of Glasgow that I call home. Perhaps the pollution from the nearby Clyde Tunnel is to blame.

Last week, though, I had two such experiences, where the clarity of the moment was unbreakable, where the immensity of the here and now engulfed my body and mind, or what’s left of the latter. Both occurred in the same locus and shared common aspects yet were otherwise an exercise in contrast.

The first came out of nowhere. I’d parked in the car park near the office and turned off the engine. I was as late as ever. But rather than getting a move on, I sat and let Bill Fay’s song Be At Peace With Yourself work its happy/sad magic over me.

“At the end of the day/ Ain’t nobody else/ Gonna walk in your shoes/ Quite the way that you do.” Unshackled from the voices that sing them, the words are prosaic. But their delivery by Fay and the London Community Gospel Choir lends them a poetic power that is enough to catch you unawares. Which is precisely what happened.

“So be at peace with yourself/ And keep a spring in your heel/ Keep climbing that hill/ And be at peace with yourself.”

I had a thousand-yard stare as the song brought vividly to mind my late mother and the acuity she’d bring to our conversations about life’s inevitable dips. Don’t let it grind you down. Rise above it. It was as if she were sitting in the passenger seat.

I’d thought the anniversary of her passing at the end of July would hit me like a train but was proved wrong. Instead, a month later, in the most mundane of surroundings, a whirlpool of grief threatened to suck me to its core. I could feel the current tugging at my feet, yet I swam free of it, crossed the beach and sought shelter in the dunes. It felt good.

Contemplation of a more frivolous nature struck with equal force a few days later as I exited the same car park after work. Hitting the on button of the stereo unleashed the silken strains of Us And Them by Pink Floyd. Glimpsing myself – Aviator shades, double denim – in the rearview mirror, the words of another song sprang to mind: “And you may ask yourself/ How did I get here?” How indeed.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

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