peine forte et dure

Jul 16, 2020 poetry appreciation

Apparently that’s the name for the torture whereby a board was placed on top of you and weights gradually added until the life was crushed out of you (or you made a plea in relation to the crime of which you were accused). “Pressing”, as it was also known, comes to my mind every now and then these days when I turn on the news or check out The Grauniad website and hear what the latest Thing is. I have a distinctly physical sense of another weight being added, another piece of bad news and difficulty on top of what already felt like a crushing load. Thus half an hour ago I was to be seen sitting with my forehead on the desk trying to summon the energy and will to sit upright. I’m sure this is a common experience. What works, apart from coffee, chocolate or a walk in the wood, is acknowledging to myself what I’m actually feeling; and so I give you ‘Talking to Grief‘ by Denise Levertov.

I don’t really want to add anything because this poem does everything all on its own. Perhaps I can simply rejoice in the simplicity and power of the extended metaphor. I love the fact that Levertov isn’t talking about “wallowing”—how I hate it when people say that when they actually mean simply feeling something: she’s not wanting to make a luxurious bed for grief, simply offer it a ‘worn mat’ and its own ‘water dish’. It’s about naming, acknowledging and tending—admitting (literally, in the poem) the feeling which has been ‘under the porch’ and letting it come in to its ‘real place’. It’s about owning feelings and being owned by them, over the ‘winter’ or for as long as they need to be present.

Above all, though, it’s about ‘trust[ing]’ grief’: it has a rightful place, it has something for us. It needs to be accepted and allowed simply because it is. And while it might need ‘coax[ing]’ if we’ve been pushing it away for a long time, once admitted it knows what’s what. It recognises the right people to let near it, and will ‘warn… off’ those who would intrude.

And my, it feels like a big old dog at the moment. I’ll just go and look out a suitably big dish for water…

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