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I wrote a poem for my brother’s birthday— I thought. Then I reread it and saw it was end-stopped prose, the only virtue of which was knowing that I had written it. There is something mirage-like about seeing your own written work: the familiarity of your authorship whispers assurances of its worth. And then you recognize the shimmering, and you have to decide whether to force yourself to acknowledge the mirage, or double down on the fantasy.

I will fold, this time, and instead tell a story I have never related. My brother was five years behind me at the same private, all boys school I attended. It was a place that cloaked its viciousness in striped ties and maroon blazers. There was a boy in my brother’s class everyone mocked: he wore two large hearing aids, and he was alarmingly unathletic. He struggled, that kid, to carry his books down the jostling stairs, and to navigate the cafeteria line, and to walk through the baseball game in the playground. His name was Eric Jay.

I never did anything to help him. I just watched, saddened; but I never saw overt aggressiveness, just disdain and exclusion, and so I never intervened. I had my own shit to do.

This happened twenty five years ago, and I have never recounted it, so I am struggling with what exactly the event was. Was there a fight, or did the other kids gang up on Eric? I think it was much more subtle— just another day at school. But this day I was standing off to one side, and the kids were teasing their classmate, and he was struggling, cowering maybe, and then I saw my brother go help Eric. Maybe my brother just stood with him for a second, or helped him down the stairs. But he helped a kid who needed it. I never helped Eric Jay, or stood with him, but my brother did.

Catullus and Charles and Eddie fantasize simply about saying hello to their lost brothers. Zbigniew Herbert’s fantasy of connection is indirect, but he too seems to imagine a reunion, one in which the brother has limits to his speech— he tells stories with his hands, touching his brother’s face. I can still say hello to my brother— and I do, I will— but I never say what I should. And that is why I never read “The Rain” without paying abundant tribute: I am the older brother, and like Herbert’s older brother, I can only speak figuratively, with my hands.

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Zbigniew Herbert’s poem “The Rain” (from Selected Poems, 1968) is about a brother lost to a war wound (I’ll skip the original, which is in Polish— but my brother wouldn’t):

When my older brother

came back from the war

he had on his forehead a little silver star

and under the star

an abyss

a splinter of shrapnel

hit him at Verdun

or perhaps at Grünwald

(he’d forgotten the details)

he used to talk much

in many langauges

but he liked most of all

the language of history

until losing his breath

he commanded his dead pals to run

Roland Kowalski Hannibal

he shouted

that this was the last crusade

that Carthage soon would fall

and then sobbing confessed

that Napoleon did not like him

we looked at him

getting paler and paler

abandoned by his senses

he turned slowly into a monument

into musical shells of ears

entered a stone forest

and the skin of his face

was secured

with the blind dry

buttons of eyes

nothing was left him

but touch

what stories

he told with his hands

in the right he had romances

in the left soldier’s memories

they took my brother

and carried him out of town

he returns every fall

slim and very quiet

he does not want to come in

he knocks at the window for me

we walk together in the streets

and he recites to me

improbable tales

touching my face

with blind fingers of rain.

A moment of respect for the sere genius of Mr Herbert, please.

Let’s just parse the literal and figurative elements of this poem, if we can. Something happens to the speaker’s brother over the course of the poem— he gets worse, loses his senses, and all he can do is touch. I read it literally until the brother’s return every fall. I think the older brother gets carried away for good, or dies, but every fall it rains— the “slim and very quiet” rain “knocks at the window for me”— and that is the figurative return of the older brother. Then the speaker goes for a walk by himself, and the feeling of the rain on his face reminds him of the touch of his brother’s hands.

That makes some sense, right? But the last two lines invite us to revise again:

touching my face

with blind fingers of rain

These lines make me think: maybe the annual return is not of the rain outside, but of the speaker’s tears, which return every fall for some reason (an anniversary?). His tears prompt the speaker to get up, leave his house, walk through the streets, and think about his absent brother. The tears, and maybe the rain, streaming down his face remind him of his absent brother’s story-telling hands.

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The classic, and classical, poem addressing a lost brother is by Catullus (84– 54 BC; author of “odi et amo”, “I hate and I love”) :

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus

advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias

ut te postremo donarem munere mortis

et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem.

Quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,

heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi,

nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum

tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,

accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu

atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

[I’ve traveled far across many peoples and many seas

and come, my brother, for this—your— miserable funeral

so that I can give you this last gift of the dead

and speak, pointlessly, to your silent ashes.

Since fortune took you away from me—

God-awful, totally unfair, my brother taken from me—

now still anyway these rites, inherited from our family

and handed down in the gloomy tradition of funeral services,

accept them, my brother, flowing in this stream of tears

and hey, always be well. My brother, be well.]

I imagine the speaker here nearing the end of his long trip to his brother’s funeral, writing his eulogy, a ten line unrhymed poem in elegiac couplets. The gift he brings in line three, and that he asks his brother to accept in line nine— what is it, exactly? Grammatically it is somewhat unclear— the direct object of accept is haec, a pronoun that refers mostly to the “funeral rites” that their family is accustomed to. But the speaker’s gift is also the words he wants to speak, in line 4, and which he actually does speak in the last line of the poem: hey, always be well. My brother, be well. It is eerily like “December 2”, where the speaker repeats his request— I only want to say hello to him— twice in the chorus. Catullus wants to say hello, and he does, knowing that his brother’s ashes can’t reply. But he doesn’t say his brother can’t hear him.

The gift in this poem is also the rites flowing in a stream of tears. Or the gift is, as the novelist Frederick Exley quoted someone else as saying, the abundant tribute of my tears. Which leads us to the next, and best, poem on the loss of a brother…maybe tomorrow.

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My brother’s birthday is coming up, and I have been thinking about poems and lyrics on the subject of absent brothers. This is from Charles and Eddie; the song is “December 2”, from the album Duophonic (1992). You should go listen to it. And then come back. Please.

I wake up thinking that my brother’s here

can’t accept he’s gone away to the other side

I feel him watching over me sometimes

only time I ever get to feel like smiling

(chorus)

so heaven please don’t let me down

I only want to say hello to him

just make me want to live myself

cause right now I don’t feel much like it

(verse #2)

I tried so hard to understand this loss

we believed in Jesus but did he believe in us

my brother only lived to thirty one

now I’m my Mom and Dad’s only son

(chorus again)

so heaven please don’t let me down

I only want to say hello to him

just make me want to live myself

cause right now I don’t feel much like it.

This is verse as spoken word— much, much harder to do than it looks. The first line is a perfect iambic pentameter, as is the third. The only bad line— We believed in Jesus but did he believe in us— works because it enacts the lack of artifice that characterizes real sadness. And it sets up the gruesomely straightforward line, “My brother only lived to thirty one”, and the only tight rhyme in the song: thirty one/ only son. The song is a request, a favor the singer asks “heaven”– to allow him to say hello to his brother. Does it work? Is it heard? It is such a modest request; he doesn’t even ask for a response.

As per a request, this is from Seamus Heaney’s book Electric Light (2001):

 

The Gaeltacht

I wish, mon vieux, that you and Barlo and I

Were back in Rosguill, on the Atlantic Drive,

And that it was again nineteen sixty

And Barlo was alive

 

And Paddy Joe and Chips Rafferty and Dicky

Were there talking Irish, for I believe

In that case Aoibheann Marren and Margaret Conway

And M. and M. and Deirdre Morton and Niamh

 

Would be there as well. And it would be great too

If we could see ourselves, if the people we are now

Could hear what we were saying, and if this sonnet

 

In imitation of Dante’s, where he’s set free

In a boat with Lapo and Guido, with their girlfriends in it,

Could be the wildtrack of our gabble above the sea.

 

–Seamus Heaney

Brazil v Chile: 2010 FIFA World Cup - Round of Sixteen

Letter to a Botanist

with apologies to Seamus Heaney (cf. “The Gaeltacht”)

I wish that Hirsh and I could visit you

down in Brazil, with Ballgame and Hitzrot, and that Trevor

would come too. But there’s never

time, Hirsh has a kid now, and Ballgame is always at work.

We could get Hitzrot, if we got the others. And when

is the last time anybody talked to Trevor? In this

cafe I have to be subdued. I’m alone, I know

no one, they’re all on their laptops, even the ones

whose girlfriends want to talk. So I

behave, sit still, drink my cold coffee, look

at my book. But it would be great if we could all

meet you on the beach and drink caipirinhas

or play stickball with some kids in Curitiba

or— wait, I’ve got it— get tickets to the

Mundial, cheer for the national team, dance

samba in the stands, the six of us together

riding the waves of yellow, green, and blue.

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Some of us struggled more than others in the bright, salty, open water. I trained myself to do things besides move my limbs to stay afloat: I observed the swells and the light reflecting off of them at different times of day. I watched the fishing birds, and the way they kept an eye on the surface of the water and on each other, so that when any bird dove the rest of the flock would break toward him. Sometimes I came together with another small group of swimmers, and we shared stories about what we had seen and done. I noticed that in every group there was one person the others looked to. And although I was energized by each of these interactions, I spent most of my time alone.

Sleep was always difficult. To relax was to give yourself up to the current and the waves. Every time I felt certain that there was a real threat nearby, I started awake to find only the familiar sky and the glinting blanket of the waterline. I calmed myself down by folding my hands over the center of my chest, and I concentrated on the feeling of the wavelets that broke gently over my arms and found the space between my folded hands. I never slept through a full night.

Anders would come look for me often.

“Did you see that pod of dolphins?” he asked one day.

“No– what happened?”

He started with a laugh. “Sometimes they are skittish, but these two dolphins just came right up to me. They are so smart, and so playful. One of them poked his head up out of the water and looked me right in the face, about two inches away. And then—” he did that half-laugh again— “he flipped over and showed me his belly.”

There were long shoals we knew of, barely submerged sandbars that formed pools against the current where you could float effortlessly. The pools reminded me of the quiet chapels lining the sides of the nave of a grand cathedral. We spent many evenings looking for the different kinds of citrusy fruit half hidden like Easter eggs in the grasses on the surface of the water in those shoals, and talking about the light, and the birds, and the other animals we had seen.