We lose people, we who are the quick.
Or maybe it’s more accurate to say they leave us. We hold tight to them, for all we are worth, but in the end, if they see the crack in the door and clear path to get to that sliver of sky beyond, they go.
Our mothers and fathers, our brothers and sisters, friends, lovers, enemies, they go.
“Go” is a helpful euphemism, isn’t it? Let’s agree to say go for now, because we can’t bring ourselves to utter that other final verb that defines how a life that walked beside us can end.
When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes. –Erasmus
Years and years ago, when I got a little money that should have gone for milk and bread, I bought an old book in a junk shop. The cover reads Poetic Fancies. It was already tattered, it’s spine broken and a charnel smell that came off on my hands when I opened it. I almost passed it up.
Then I opened the cover and found a dedication page on which a mother or father had written To “Ruby and Garnet” by “Papa and Mamma, Dec. 25, 1895.”
The book I held had come into an unknown family as a gift. When I found it, it was already over a hundred years old. But for me, it’s not about the book itself. I’m not a collector. For me, it’s about Ruby and Garnet and Momma and Papa. Who where they? Did they read these poems to each other at night by a gas lamp? Did they memorize them? Which poem was their favorite? Did they make up their own verse?
The book is filled with poems I’ve never come across in my life written mostly by poets I don’t recognize. But some of them I do recognize: Keats’ Bright Star, Wordsworth’s The Reaper, and John Greenleaf Whittier’s Early Spring where one discovers out from its sunned and sheltered nooks/the blue eye of the violet looks.
The section heads are divided into Poems of Pathos, Love and Romance, The Fireside, Scenes in Nature, Heroism and Freedom, and one of my favorites Wit and Satire, because evidently two centuries back poems were allowed to be funny.
“This new and comprehensive work comprises the rarest of gems of Poetry, Prose and Song ever given to the world,” state the editors in the preface. “The riches thoughts of the master minds of all ages, the sweetest songs of immortal bards, the thrilling production which awaken the deepest emotions of every heart, the brightest jewels kindled by the light of human genius are brought together in this volume.”
The brightest jewels of human genius brought together and given to the cherished gems of an unknown family: Ruby and Garnet.
Who were they? We’ll never know. Surely, long before this it was their time to go. Now all we have is their book. And from their book, my favorite poem, because it’s up to us, the ones left behind, to remember how we loved when people go:
Hard is the truth to comprehend
When life is throbbing our in veins–
Warm life, whose pleasures and whose pains
Seem equally without an end–
That soon, perhaps, and certainly
We who are the quick the dead shall be.
And that more bitter truth, alas,
How hard it is to realize,
That when we pass from living eyes,
Need and desire for us shall pass;
Our place be filled, our memories seem
Only the echoes of a dream!
Better–the wise say–while we tread
Life’s busy ways, to find death’s wrong
Less grievous when the grass is long
Above a once beloved head:
Too short is time for vain regret,
And they are happiest that forget.
But oh, my lost one, doubly dear
Since death has claimed you, in my heart
There is a chamber set apart
For you, you only. Have no fear.
Life shrines your precious memory,
And death will give you back to me.