I Disagree

Today I’m wishing to be a poet. Today I’m wishing I could write elevated language; like what I want to say I just can’t get to in simple sentences. Because I’m trying to say what I feel when I look to my left and see Philip’s headshot on my desk, to the right and see the portrait of me, him and Natalie. The helplessness, frustration and continual shock of those moments caught in time, that this child of mine is to live in my memory but not in the flesh. I want to say it in such gorgeous language it’ll pierce your heart the way mine is; I want to give shape to our shared humanity. Because I’m standing out here in a way that feels alone in the way that only Death can leave you, and that’s not where I’m wanting to be.

I’m not a big reader of poetry. I don’t always have the patience, don’t always understand what I’m reading. But when a poem moves me, I stay moved. Like Stephen Crane’s, “In the Desert,” which I already wrote about. Like Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan.” Talk about gorgeous language, about language painting a living, trembling picture. Like Jane Kenyon’s, “Having it Out With Melancholy,” – depression elevated to art. Tell me there isn’t something in it that won’t have you saying, “Yes, yes.” Or anything by Louise Gluck.

My friend Ed is a poet. We met when I was 36. Philip was three and Natalie just turned one, and I decided to go to college and get the degree I’d never gotten back when everyone else I knew did. I still don’t have it, but I have Ed.

Ed is an English Professor, and he was teaching the Shakespeare class I’d signed up for. It was somewhere around the first minute he started speaking when I thought, “This is the teacher I’ve been looking for.” Bam. Sometimes you just recognize someone even if you’ve never met them before. And nearly twenty years later, I can tell you he’s saved my life. My emotional, spiritual, psychic life. The life underneath the busyness of what it looks like we’re doing when what we’re really trying to do is hang on for another day.

Last week Ed was talking to me about John Keats. Ed is a serious man, Keats is a serious poet. “Have you seen the sketch of Keats on his deathbed by Joseph Severn?” he asked. “Go look at it.” So I looked at this beautiful boy, 25 and dying, caught in a moment of rest and peace, and then I emailed Ed. Did you know he died the same day as Philip, I asked; did you know the year was 1821? 18-21?? I did not, he answered. Then, a few days later, this, from Ed:

Sonnet: A Poet, A Boy

He died the day the poet John Keats died,
whose tormented lungs finally gave way.
He was twenty-five, superbly alive,
inventing language to preserve the day,
the instant of the living human heart.
With words he seized a handful of water–
impossible, I know–but his great art
achieved this, as he, dying, grew gaunter.
The other one was an older child,
twenty-one on the day he lost his heart.
He was–I knew him–clever, loving, mild–
but becoming lost had become his art.
Two beautiful males share the same death date–
a poet, a boy, who rushed to his fate.

And I am collapsed again because that boy – my boy – “rushed to his fate.” It’s all our fates, no? To die? It’s a fact we don’t face until we’re forced to. Philip was racing to his death unaware and it is precisely his vulnerability that’s killing me. I’ve been asked if I’m angry at him for taking the drugs that killed him; I’m not. He didn’t know. Yes, he made poor choices but he wasn’t able to do otherwise. Like all the poor choices I’ve made – and I’m talking serious shit, alcohol-drugs-anorexia-bulimia shit. I couldn’t choose otherwise until I was ready, and I happened to live until I was.

You can’t not love the light because he’s died, Ed says. But I’ve always preferred the night, the gloaming and the gray. Yet sometimes, at a certain time of day, when that light hits the trees in a certain way, I think he’s right. But other times, like when its harshness wakes me from a dreamless sleep to remind me once again of what I’ve lost, I disagree. And even though I know Ed knows better than me, for tonight – I disagree.

© 2013 Denise Smyth


16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. merrysusanna
    Oct 05, 2013 @ 08:47:28

    I like Ed’s term ‘rushed to his fate’. Yes, we all share the same ultimate fate but by his innocence, your Philip engaged in behavior that upped his vulnerability. We send our children out into the world because to not do so would be to smother them, but we fear what can happen. Thanks for this post. I am sending you love and a hug.


  2. Denise
    Oct 05, 2013 @ 09:23:58

    Thank you – and what child thinks s/he’s vulnerable? I think of him going out that night, coming home, doing what he did, not for a moment thinking anything could be so wrong…and then I have to say, “Stop it.” I’ve been told countless times he felt no fear because of the heroin; and I tell you I’m grateful. The thought of Philip feeling even a moment of terror because he knew what was happening, because it came upon him so quickly…but it’s done. It’s just figuring out how to live with this, how to stay close to him because he’s gone in body, not in spirit.

    Somehow doesn’t seem enough…


  3. grahamforeverinmyheart
    Oct 05, 2013 @ 11:44:28

    The difference between our boys who are gone and others who are still here is, I believe, ultimately a moment of bad luck for them. Although Philip exposed himself to unnecessary risk, most people survive it. He was unlucky this time. It’s a terrible waste of a wonderful soul. And the stigma of drug use leads many ignorant people to conclude that the death was deserved. They have no idea what was lost and how a bad decision in the moment does not reflect a person’s entire life and worth.
    Your poet/professor/friend is a gem.


  4. Denise
    Oct 05, 2013 @ 12:37:25

    Yes, he is. And it’s true – it’s easy to forget that a kid who use drugs – especially then dies from it – is a real, live person who has many sides to them, like we all do; that they have family and friends who love them. I mean, I used lots and lots of drugs and drank while I did it. You could say I’m lucky and Philip wasn’t…though God knows facing his death every day doesn’t make me feel particularly lucky. Still – I’m blessed and graced that Philip is my son ,and much as I want the physical relationship I had with him, I’m grateful to feel him around me every day.

    I know you’re suffering, too; and I think you’re kind and compassionate to have started your webpage. Sending much love your way.


  5. Lucia Maya
    Oct 05, 2013 @ 12:41:57

    Beautiful. Your prose is enough. You don’t need poetry to convey how you feel. Your words show your heart cracked wide open, show how much love was, and is, present between you and Philip….

    I am glad for you being here and sharing your words – every time I see an email showing a new post of yours, I’m happy. I know I’ll be reading something that touches me, that I can relate to, that pleases my senses, my heart and my intellect. I am glad to know more of Ed as well and loved what he wrote.



    • Denise
      Oct 05, 2013 @ 19:34:53

      Lucia, I feel the same when I see that you’ve posted also. A little more of you, a little more of Elizabeth. You’ve no idea how she soothes me. She’s caused a shift in me, if that’s the way to say it. The world needs us to see it – so if we die, is it still here? There is much to think about if you look at it that way. And I don’t mean as answer – I mean as broadening perspective.

      She’s a jewel, you know. I love you both.


  6. lensgirl53
    Oct 05, 2013 @ 15:32:19

    Denise, to appreciate poetry is wonderful in itself. You do not have to be an artist to appreciate the paintings and sculptures at the Louvre likewise you do not have to be a poet to love the machinations of poetry and its imagery.

    I think you convey grief and its painful and chilling portrait very well. Much love… God bless you.


  7. Denise
    Oct 05, 2013 @ 20:52:42

    You’re right; because what I do appreciate of poetry makes me want to feel more deeply, even if it’s painful. Because there’s something more than that pain, even if it’s elusive.

    So much love back to you…


  8. Joyce McCartney
    Oct 06, 2013 @ 21:36:48

    I’ve spent the better part of today trying to figure out 1) how to blog about my one year; and 2) how to respond to this post. Here’s what I want you to know: You don’t need to be a poet, you write from the heart and that’s some of the most beautiful poetry there is. Hugs.


  9. Susie MIller
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 13:13:43

    I found your blog recently and immediately became a follower. Your essays ARE poetry…just prose poetry. Another form. I am drawn to your words and your story because it’s about the human condition and the will to survive in the face of the heart’s cracking open. Blessings and love to you.

    p.s. The coincidence of Keats’ and Phillip’s deaths gave me chills. I find the number patterns really breath-taking.


    • Denise
      Oct 07, 2013 @ 17:53:20

      Susie, thank you; Philip is my muse and if I am writing well it’s with his help. It’s my need; I have to tell this story or it will choke me.

      My number with Philip is 201 – if you read the post I wrote about that, it’s a combination of his (and my) birthday being on the 20th, and him dying at 21. In February, the second month. I’m saying that because I remember about ten years ago I did this numerology thing, and the result was I was told “two” was an important number for me. What? I don’t even like 2. I like 3 and 9. And here I am, 2 and all.

      Blessings and love back to you.


    • Denise
      Oct 07, 2013 @ 18:11:58

      Sorry – I just realized you meant MY number patterns are breath-taking; I don’t know what I was thinking to ask if you read what I wrote about 201, etc. Still – it’s so weird to be told “2” is important, and it’s so much a part of what connects me to Philip.


  10. Susie Miller
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 20:38:29

    Yes, I have read your numbers post. It resonated for me. Those numbers connections are like points on a sticky web of the universe. Hold on to them, Denise.


  11. Denise
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 20:50:51

    “Points on a sticky web of the universe.” Who’s the poet now??

    And you’re right – that’s how I feel connection.


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