Although I’m collecting my notes on Hoosier poets under the title “No More Corn,” I can’t stop referring to the agrarian or meteorological. Even though I live in a city of more than one million. Even though I’m no farmer’s daughter. This is a state where the seasons—and turns of weather—matter. And when fall comes, and the basil on the back porch, so gorgeous all summer, starts acquiring spots from the chilly nights, I find myself thinking of Marianne Boruch’s “Elegy,” an autumn-of-life poem that laments not only the passing of someone deeply loved but also the charmed innocence before death entered the picture:
Before the basil blackened. Before plates
slept in their cupboard. Before the streets
were snow. Before the song started in the throat
or crept sideways into the hands that hold the cello
or the moon spilled to nonsense all
over the floor. Before color composed itself
to twenty names for blue, or was it green or was it
red? Before seeds entered the ground
to transform themselves. Before cake was eaten, before
the icing bubbled up and crystallized. Before
all that sugar. Before shells
when things were moving in them and the sea
made a noise. Before our son grew so eye
to eye. Before worms made their fiefdom
in the compost. Before sleep refused the night
and the clock kept ticking. Before the hospital
took the soul from the body, dark
from dark, and the long drive home. Before the dog
stopped mid-bark to bark and the cat rose
from her stretch, unblinking. Before every moth
in the flour stilled its wings. Before the stain,
before its memory in the wood
grew wider. Before the garden gave everything
to weeds. Remember that, O charm
to forget, to go back, to vanish? Before
the dead appeared at the edge of my vision. Before
the grace to be broken was broken.
In times of grief—or even when the rhythms of summer squeal to a halt—what we mourn in part is the loss of “the way things were.” We crave pattern and ritual. And that’s what I love about this poem. By starting 21 phrases with “before,” Boruch in one big whoosh is able to celebrate the life of the person who died, to suggest the magnitude of that loss, and to offer some consolation through her cadenced patterning. Edward Hirsch, in How to Write a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, reminds us that anaphora (from the Greek for “carrying up or back”) helps words and phrases “accumulate mysterious power and resonance through repetition.”
Anaphora helps poets throw lots of different things together and sort them out at the same time. So it is in Boruch’s poem where she’s able to combine images of domestic life (“plates . . . in the cupboard,” moths in the flour, birthday cake), gardening (the basil blackening, the compost and worms), and artmaking. In contrast to earlier generations of poets, Boruch is always on the lookout for ways to combine nature and culture.
Of the many artmaking images, we first find references to music: “Before the song started in the throat or crept / sideways into the hands that hold the cello” (3-4). The repeated hard O in “throat,” “hold,” and “cello” recalls a moan of love or pain, but also reminds us how important sound patterns are to music and to life. Even this grief, the speaker implies, can be cast into cadence. Both her music reference and the painting one that follows—“Before color / composed itself to twenty names / for blue” (6-8)—reveal sadness being transformed into pattern. Both images also suggest that the full meaning of the speaker’s life with the person she lost “composed itself” only after the death.
Images of domestic life in the first half of the poem illuminate a different facet of the loss. The speaker refers to a time “Before cake was eaten, before / the icing bubbled up and crystallized. Before all / that sugar” (9-11). This image feels celebratory, more suited to a birthday or wedding than a funeral. Of course, birthdays and anniversaries occur every year of our lives, and the cake images suggest a regular if over-the-top sweetness. By contrast, the phrase “Before plates / slept in their cupboard” (1-2) emphasizes how the ordinary routines of cooking and serving meals were disrupted by death. Unlike all that bubbling and sweetness, the choices of “slept” and “cupboard” bring to mind a stillness with the chill of the mortal.
Nature images in the poem’s first half also suggest the inevitability of death. Boruch offers images of “seeds enter[ing] the ground / to transform themselves,” basil “blacken[ing],” shells with “things. . ./ moving in them,” and a son (“our son,” she says) who “grew so eye / to eye.” Over the course of her life, the speaker has witnessed many beginnings and endings. Even as she is sprinkling basil seeds on the soil, the speaker has to be aware that in several months the mature plant will “blacken” and die. At the moment of her son’s birth, she knows he will one day go to school, grow up and leave.
The knowledge that life must end does not, of course, make death any easier. But Boruch suggests that some residue of our existence remains. The empty shell’s showy whorls remind us of the creature it once contained. The seeds “[enter] the ground” not to be hidden from the light forever, but rather to be “transform[ed].”
The second half of the poem laments the loss both of the person who died and also the shared rituals that ended with the death. It contains three natural images with connotations of mortality: “worms made their fiefdom / in the compost” (14-15); “every moth / in the flour stilled its wings” (20-21); and “the garden gave everything / to weeds” (23-24). Worms and moths and weeds bring to mind graves, nightfall, and fruitlessness—and of course, there’s the resonance of “widow’s weeds, ” too.
This part of the poem explicitly mentions death and the anxiety it causes. The speaker mentions that “sleep refused the night / and the clock kept ticking” (15-16)—an image suggestive of insomnia in general and a deathwatch in particular. The sleepless vigil sounds solitary. The next phrase states that “the hospital / took the soul from the body” (16-17), as if to place the hospital in the role of a soul-robber, suggesting that its antiseptic space is somehow hostile to the messy vibrancy of life.
And then we come to the climax of the poem when the anaphora finally grinds to a halt just as life did. After 19 successive phrases beginning with “before,” the speaker asks, “Remember that, O charm / to forget, to go back, to vanish?” The pronoun “that” most likely refers to the previous noun: the garden that “gave everything / to weeds.” Boruch’s line break here is telling. To line end, the phrase reads “Before the garden gave everything,” suggesting the plenitude at the peak of the harvest. But when we add the enjambed phrase “to weeds” we are faced, like the speaker, with the finality of death. The speaker’s wish “to forget, to go back, to vanish” is understandable. If only the death could be erased from the mind, if only there were a way to return to life as it was, if only we could vanish just as the dead had because part of us can’t imagine living without the person. The clause beginning with “Remember” seems less a question than a command. Memory is an act of will—with no wiggle room for dodging or denying—even if it means sentencing us to mourn. The poem’s final two lines reinforce this reading: “Before / the dead appeared at the edge of my vision. Before / the grace to be broken was broken” (26-27). The speaker has been forced to relinquish the dreamy spell of unbroken “grace,” when it was still possible to deny death’s insistence presence.
Here in the Hoosier capital, we haven’t had a frost yet. Those of us with gardens are still hoping to cobble together a few more Caprese salads, another batch or two of pesto. But when it’s time to put our plots to rest and start spading around again in the inky soil of poetry, fortified by Boruch’s “Elegy,” we’ll be ready.
Marianne Boruch’s “Elegy” originally appeared in the Massachusetts Review 42.1 (2001): 12. It also can be found in her Poems New & Selected (Oberlin College Press, 2004).