Sleep My Love

A poem

Photo by YUCAR FotoGrafik on Unsplash

Let me hold you as you weep,
, you are too small to feel pain,

Sleep, my love, my arms hold you
now can comfort you, so sleep

In years to come, I can’t protect you
let me take you in my arms, sleep my love

Grazed knees, broken toys, I’ll hold you
I mend, I kiss the wound
, sleep my love

The sound I make soothes you to peace
in time to come, 
I won’t be able to fix it all

Sleep, my love, while you can, in my arms
my heart walks around me inside you

So sleep now, my love, sleep, my love



A poem

Autumn falls but you brought winter
Freezing winds and icicles seize the heart

You weren’t content to let death us part
Spite and hate had to be left behind

For others to deliver
Autumn falls and icicles seize the heart

Published in The Lark


How I survived childhood…

My mother was a narcissist. I am very grateful that I was brought up by my Oma and Opa, my maternal grandparents until I was five.

I would not take my mother’s milk, so she handed me to her mother and went to work. My Dad was mainly overseas. I had loving older sister who was already very damaged by my mother but I was unaware of her turmoil until we were young adults.

My Oma and Opa had three other grandchildren when I arrived. My two cousins and sister were part of my world from my start. My grandparents were nurturing, loving, maybe a bit over indulgent, fun, and consistent.

Oma’s food was my nectar. I thrived and became a healthy, happy, carefree little girl and my memories of my mother during those five years are nil. Not one memory of my mother from those early years, though I recall events, my sister, my Dad, and both Oma and Opa clearly as well as neighbours, and dogs, snowy winters, long summers, stealing cherries from the tree, climbing staircases, my Opa’s workshop, the Singer sewing machine, Schroder’s the bakery, my sister having her tonsils removed, wondering what a ‘needle in her arm’ meant and how was that possible.

We moved to England with my Dad’s job. I pined for Oma and Opa. I grew thin. My first memory of my mother is walking to see a doctor about my weight. I have no memory of her until my grandparents were not a permanent nurturing framework.

Eventually we moved to the home we all lived in until my sister left to train as a nurse, and I left soon after because I could not bear living in a house with my mother without my sister.

Once in England, my closeness to my sister began to have chinks. She would report any perceived misdemeanour to my mother. This baffled me. Why would she spoil our play by going to tell our mother silly little details that I could not remember doing? Why was it important to tell my mother I had jumped across and down a terraced flower bed? Had my sister not joined in? And hanging upside down in a tree? Why report that?

So my mother would start a message to me that I was spoilt. It became the background music to any conversation alone with her. At sixteen, it became that I was rebellious. I knew that I wasn’t. I knew I was only being who I was, and that appeared to be irksome to my mother.

My Dad found no fault with me. He and I would walk. Walking was what we did. I learned about birds and their songs from him. I learned how to be downwind of animals so that I could get closer to them. Dad taught me without words, but when he spoke, softly imparting confidences, as though I were the most trustworthy person in the world, it was to impart knowledge that enriched me and gave me such respect for the Earth, Nature, forests, rivers, and all the inhabitants which were not human.

He taught me respect for others, lowly or titled because he could be at ease with all, unchanged. My Dad taught by example, instilled truths and values.

My mother taught me what I did not want to be. Fault finding. Perfectionist. Nagging. Bemoaning living among the British, although Germans liked her no better. I experienced her arguing with every member of my extended family. Notice how I refer to her. I am detached. Not ‘mother’ as that suggests relationship. I need to state which mother. So ‘my’ mother.

My sister was engaged twice, and twice broke them off. At my mother’s instructions. My sister could not assert herself, and trying to back her decisions was soul destroying as she gave up at the word of my mother.

I realise my mother was in my sister’s entire life and she destroyed my sister on the inside. Emotionally and mentally.

I was spared, thanks to being second-born and handed to my Oma and Opa.


A bad fall, and other adventures…

And really uncomfortable for anyone!

Today was my bus journey to my medical. I got on the correct bus, but then got off one stop too soon. I know the area, as I used to drive my daughter to dance lessons around there. I went along some back lanes and found it with 5 minutes to spare.

So much for my angst.

When I came out a slight shower had started, but I decided to come home through the park, which is beautiful and very famous. So the shower stopped, and I enjoyed doing some window shopping. As I came nearer to the park, I realised I was near some friends I hadn’t seen in a while. I turned into what I thought was their road, but I would learn that I was at the back of their house. So I tried knocking on their back door and there no reply. I didn’t want to disturb other people, so I started to go back the way I thought I had come. I came to a steep incline with a very low kerb, so I started up it cautiously. But my mobility scooter tipped over, and therefore so did I.

My head hit the ground and the back of my pelvis took a bang too. My instinctive thought always is I don’t want an ambulance. I started calling out for help. I was amazed at my lung power. My friend heard me and came running, calling my name. He picked me up and took me in a hug, while I just shook and kept saying Matthew, Matthew. Another man appeared and helped Matthew pick up mobility scooter (I call it my trolley).

I was taken in for a cup of tea. Matthew asked if I was concussed, so I said no, holding up one finger and said ‘Do you see five fingers too?’. I’m not concussed although a mild headache has set in. Matthew Bolt has seen me in several states of unwellness, and he is always great.

This evening I realised that my mothers funeral was seven years ago. I asked my school friend to make floral tributes from my Dad and from my sister and I.

Here are the flowers from my Dad.

My parents didn’t always have a happy marriage. My mother enjoyed being an officer’s wife, and missed the income after my Dad left the S.A.S. She would criticise him in front of my sister and me. I once saw her go at time with a knife. He protected himself with a chair. I often wished they would divorce.

I don’t miss my mother at all. When I heard she had died, my first reaction was death was relief. I had cared for her when she had a significant stroke, a year before her death. At first she was kind and complimenting me, but as the week went on she became less kind, and back her critical self.


Writing Grief

Naja Marie Aidt’s new memoir, When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back, translated from the original Danish by Denise Newman, begins with an epigraph from Rilke’s “The Tenth Elegy.” The lines are all about grief—“The new stars of the land of grief,” the first line tells us, “Slowly the lament names them.” The epigraph proceeds for a few lines, naming the different stars, before concluding, “But there, in the southern sky, pure as the lines / on the palm of a blessed hand, the clear sparkling M / that stands for Mothers……—.” And so begins Aidt’s book, putting a specific form of grief on the mind and heart of the reader—that of a mother grieving her lost child.

On March 16, 2015, Aidt’s son Carl died. His death was an accident, self-inflicted while in the depths of a particularly dark mushroom-induced psychotic state. When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back is Aidt’s reckoning with that death—with how it could have happened to the son that she knew, with why the police’s response to the emergency call of Carl’s friend was so slow, with how Carl could have jumped out of a window to his death but that death not have been suicide, and much more. It’s raw and angry as Aidt yearns for understanding, yearns for her son to not be dead.

As Aidt goes about the Herculean effort of wrestling with her son’s death, she utilizes a remarkable variety of forms; her grief is expressed not only through the substance of her words, but also through the structure of her text. The work includes passages from her diary composed in the years of Carl’s childhood; quotations from writers as varied as Anne Carson, Stéphane Mallarmé, and C. S. Lewis; passages that read like rants at death, at life, at what she’s having to live through (“DEATH WALKS BESIDE US IT IS REAL IT IS NOT CALLIGRAPHY NOT A FUCKING IMAGINED SUFFERING IT IS REAL,” reads one stream of consciousness passage); poems and journal entries pulled from Carl’s papers after his death; and more. All of it taken together leaves the reader with a real sense of the author’s lostness, her groundlessness, of what the death of one dearly loved leaves in its wake. A coherent form no longer seems reasonable, nor possible, in the book Aidt has constructed.

Indeed, Aidt actively wrestles on the page with the idea of making art out of her son’s death—an inherent contradiction in the book she has produced, which is an undoubtedly beautiful artistic achievement. “Beauty has abandoned my language,” she writes. “My language walks in mourning clothes. I’m completely indifferent.” Another passage, from a page-long rambling paragraph, aptly describes Aidt’s conundrum in the work she’s doing: “It’s not possible to write artistically about raw grief. No form fits. To write about actual nothingness, the absence of life. How? To write about the silent unknown that we are all going to meet, how? If you want to avoid sentimentality, the pain stops the sentence mid-sentence. Words sit inadequate and silly on the lines, the lines stop abruptly on their own.” The task Aidt has in front of her with this book is three-fold: to reckon with the death of her son on the page; to create a work of art out of the “inadequate and silly” words her grief produces; and to remain honest to her experience in doing so.

By these measures, the book is a real success. Aidt’s willingness to wrestle with how inadequate and foolish her effort feels, and to leave that wrestling in the book, reinforces the reader’s sense of what Aidt is experiencing. She must pursue understanding; understanding is fleeting. She’s a writer, so one of the ways she can conceive of wrestling with the death of her son is through putting it down on the page; at the same time, the words feel foolish and inadequate. Nothing is sufficient.

The reader’s access to Aidt’s grief deepens through Aidt’s rejection of conventional notions of how text should be laid out on the page. The reader navigates variations of text formatting throughout the book—it’s aligned to the left in some places, and scattered throughout the page elsewhere. The size of the text varies, sometimes in coherent and traceable patterns, at other times seemingly at random. Italics and bold type are used generously throughout—discernibly in a few instances, elsewhere with no traceable intent. All of this textual experimentation cements the triumph of honesty and self-expression that this book becomes—the triumph of honesty in self-expression, complete and unmitigated. Aidt is writing what she will, in ways that feel appropriate to what’s being expressed. Her experience is unorderly; she has produced a text to match it. It’s a testament to Aidt’s translator and her editors at Coffee House Press that the finished version of this book feels essentially unedited.

Her formless work is generated from what feels like a formless life in the absence of Carl, in line with the effect Carl’s death has on her and her community of grievers—“We find ourselves in a futureless time,” she comments at one point. Time itself has lost its coherence; just as form, style, beauty in writing no longer feel tenable, so time has lost its sense of forward movement. “We sit around a kitchen table and survive second to second; we rarely get up. We’ve become rigid, while the spring light rises and falls in the sky outside: Now that you can no longer be in chronological time, neither can we.”

Even still, the reader is presented with a coherent narrative. Aidt employs a smart technique of telling the actual story of Carl’s death within the larger recounting of her grief, within the sensory depiction of that grief. Aidt tells the story in stops and starts, in italicized, set-apart paragraphs. Each paragraph tracks back a couple sentences prior to where the previous concluded, slightly retracing steps in the way, perhaps, that Aidt retells the story to herself—halting, repetitive, delaying the conclusion as long as she can.

As it happens, Aidt’s form-less, beauty-less language of grief is not the only thing that produces its own kind of beauty. Carl’s death itself brings beauty in the despair, and it’s a triumph of this book that Aidt’s recognition of this truth does not come off as trite. Coming as it does near the book’s conclusion, after the devastating majority of the book has imprinted itself on the reader’s mind, it feels surprising when she recognizes it, but not forced.

Aidt recounts two poems that she wrote while Carl was still living; his death was still in the unimaginable future. The first poem begins with the lines from which the book’s title is drawn:

When death takes something from you
give it back
give it back what you got
from the dead one
when he was alive
when he was your heart
give it back to a rose,
a continent, a winter day,
a boy regarding you
from the darkness of his hood.

“I thought intensely about you as I wrote those two poems. I saw you before me as I wrote them,” Aidt recalls. She goes on to consider the power of poetry, its role as the receptacle of omens felt but not understood—“It becomes an experience which belongs to the future, which can express, though it is not yet experienced in reality.” There’s another quality to poetry, though, that Aidt chooses to highlight: “But poems also say something about the giving back what the dead gave us when they were alive. That the dead’s being in a way still needs a place in life, and we should pass on the love they gave us. Here lies the hope. A hope that what you gave me will grow in others, if I am able to share it. And that my love is strengthened and made more beautiful because now it contains your love.” Aidt’s loss will never go away, but her hope, even in the midst of her pain, is that she can harness the love she received from her son. That good may come, even from this—a conclusion that feels trite in my writing, but earned and true within Aidt’s work.

Books change based on who is reading, though as a reader, the default I have to push against is to universalize my own sense of a book. This book, however, had me particularly conscious of my identity as a reader—namely, as one who has never experienced such grief, and never will experience this particular type. This, of course, deeply informs my reading experience. When I read this book, I see its structural and emotional intelligence and honesty, and recognize it as such. I imagine, for a mother reading this book—for one who knows the horror of which Aidt speaks – that this reads more like recollection.

Taken from Ploughshares the newsletter from Emerson College.

I feel this so much since my older sister’s pointless death almost a year ago. My dog, my best friend, died a week later.


Sharing this poem…

  • My Mother and Lucille Clifton Have Tea Parneshia Jones When I get to where I’m going
    I want the death of my children explained to me.

                                                 —Lucille Clifton

    They meet over tea and potato chips.
    Brown and buttermilk women,
    hipped and hardened,
    legs uncrossed but proper
    still in their smiles;
    smiles that carry a sadness in faint creases.
    A sadness they will never be without.

    One asks the other,
    “What do they call a woman who has lost a child?”

    The other sighs between sips of lukewarm tea.
    There is no name for us.

    “No name? But there has to be a name for us.
    We must have something to call ourselves.”

    Surely, history by now and all the women
    who carry their babies’ ghosts on their backs,
    mothers who wake up screaming,
    women wide awake in their nightmares,
    mothers still expected to be mothers and human,
    women who stand under hot showers weeping,
    mothers who wish they could drown standing up,
    women who can still smell them—hear them,
    the scent and symphony of their children,
    deep down in the good earth.

    “Surely, history has not forgotten to name us?”

    No woman wants to bear
    whatever could be the name for this grief.
    Even if she must bear the grief for all her days,
    it would be far too painful to be called by that name.

    “I’ve lost two, you know.”
    Me too.
    “I was angry at God, you know.”
    Me too.
    “I stopped praying but only for a little while,
    and then I had no choice. I had to pray again.
    I had to call out to something that was no longer there.
    I had to believe God knew where it was.”

    “I fear death no longer. It has taken everything.
    But should I be? Should I be afraid of what death has taken?
    That it took and left no name?”

    The other who sighs between sips of lukewarm tea
    leans over and kisses the cheek of the one still with questions.
    She whispers…

    No, you don’t have to be afraid.
    Death is no more scary than the lives we have lived
    without our babies, bound to this grief
    with no name.
           Copyright © 2019 Parneshia Jones.

I am sharing this poem as a mother. I taught my daughter to be independent, to not allow anyone to touch her in a way that makes her feel uncomfortable, to tell someone if a conversation makes her uncomfortable. I taught her how to use public transport, to go to school and other places on her bicycle, I taught her how to drive. She used to ride her bike with friends to a jetty and spent summer days jumping into the sea, they rode bikes in woods, they did water sports. My daughter did two Duke of Edinburgh Awards and excelled in them.

I knew I was teaching her to live with danger, and did my utmost to equip her for danger. My worst fear is to be told of her death, or serious injury. The is no name for a parent whose child has died.

I once wrote a poem about the non existent rooms in a courthouse. There are Ladies and Mens Rooms but no room named Raped, Husband Murdered, Child Killed, and other descriptions of unspeakable pain.