Everybody wants to live forever. Failing that, most will settle for leaving their mark on the world, a footprint, something enduring that says: I was here. I did something worthwhile. And I mattered. Mothers and fathers raise their children to believe that they can achieve anything they set their minds to. Architects build skyscrapers. Engineers design airplanes. Artists create sculptures or songs, and writers craft great works of literature, while poets enter the perfect darkness of the void, the deepest silence, for the sole purpose of illumination. In contrast to engineers who use metal and machinery in their pursuits, however, poets seek to illuminate through words and offer immortality of an entirely different nature: the elegy.
An elegy is a song or poem expressing sorrow, typically a lament for the dead, a memoriam. A way of honouring that which has come but is now gone. In words, a poet reveals her inner life: what moves and shakes her, or makes her want to break into a million tiny pieces; what she loves and what she hates; what she seeks to take from any communion with the world around her; what she wants to change; what she longs to discard, or refuses to release, and what will not loosen its ghostly grip on her. A poet writes to touch the throbbing life in our own veins. When she confronts the shadow of death, she faces her own mortality, but also becomes a witness to the life—the light—that has been lost. A poet writes, not only to preserve a memory, stored like jam on some long-forgotten shelf, but to keep the beloved alive. The poem, an elegy, becomes an Actual Thing in the World. Manifested, it lives on and on, as people can never do.
Innumerable examples exist of poets who have honoured those they’ve lost to death in verse. For the purposes of this essay, I will focus on the friendship between Canadian poets Carolyn Smart and Bronwen Wallace, and the legacy of their connection. Following Wallace’s “untimely and brutal death” of cancer in 1989 at the age of 44, Smart founded the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers with assistance from the Writer’s Trust of Canada, and released a volume of poetry, “The Way To Come Home,” which included a collection of poems written for her late friend. I cannot impress upon you enough, dear reader, the importance of friendship and sense of community between women writers, and the inherent value in the elegy form: evidence that a life—a light—continues to shine long after it has vanished from sight.
Recently, I had the good fortune to be in contact with Carolyn Smart. During our exchange, she spoke passionately about her friendship with Bronwen Wallace, and shared some deeply personal memories about their time together. It was both an honour and privilege for me, in some small way, to bear witness to the great affection between these two strong women.
“Death may indeed be the last great foe of writing, but writing is also the foe of death.” (J.M. Coetzee)
And so begins, “The Sound of the Birds,” a “moving re-creation of the painful last phase of Bronwen Wallace’s life from the perspective of one who suffered through it with her.” This particular quote by Coetzee, a South African writer, was chosen by Smart not only for its eloquence in sentiment, but also for its relevance to her own life. After a brief, six-week whirlwind courtship, Smart married the young South African man she had met on a blind date orchestrated by Wallace, much to her friend’s chagrin. Wallace, confides Smart, was distressed because she “never believed in marriage.” But, Smart adds, “She forgave me after a few weeks and was closely involved in my subsequent pregnancies and my second baby, Daniel, offered her much comfort in her last days… to include John Coetzee’s quote about death and writing made perfect sense to me: she will be remembered long after her death because of her excellent writing; she was stopped from continuing that writing by the fact of her own death.”
Carolyn Smart and Bronwen Wallace met in the early eighties at a poetry reading hosted by Wallace in Kingston, and the pair became “fast friends,” often sharing their work privately or attending public readings together. “Bronwen Wallace was my closest friend for nearly seven years,” Smart states. “Not only was she a close friend, she fulfilled many roles in my life, including mentor, editor, and role model. She was both the wisest and funniest person I knew.” Wallace, known for her “kindness, honesty, righteous anger, humour, and deep sense of social justice” was well-loved. In the final months of her illness, several women, including Smart, organized a care schedule in order to be available to help however she required.
It was during this time that Smart grew inspired by the sound of the birds outside Wallace’s home. “Three days a week I went to her house with my baby Daniel, born in April of the year she died in August,” Smart remembers. “Bronwen would be up in her room in bed, and Dan and I would spend a little time with her until she tired, which she did easily in those last weeks, and then we would sit downstairs and wait for the sound of the bell she would ring for us to return. Dan would mostly be sleeping; I would be looking out the window at the birds that came to the roof of the garage next to Bronwen’s house where her partner would throw birdseed every morning. Birds would flit here and there all day looking for food. Many of those birds, and in particular the cardinal, were my focus during those long and sad days.”
A poem titled, “Cardinal and Lunar Eclipse,” is the second in the selection dedicated to Bronwen Wallace in “The Way To Come Home,” which also includes “Owl, Loon and Thunderstorm,” “A Dream and a Turkey Vulture,” “Eastern Phoebe,” and “Cockatiel.” Beginning with the soft, full silence of friendship and one’s ability to hold space for another, Smart writes, “The red bird/and then silence, while I sat/and watched all you endured.” Throughout “Cardinal and Lunar Eclipse,” Smart bears witness to the private details of Wallace’s final moments, noting with care the failed treatments and white eyelet nightgown, the sheer terror, and the very words written in Wallace’s journal as she faced certain death, the clock on the wall, bird calls, and the red blood beneath the pale flesh at her throat.
Expanding further, Smart explains, “The cardinal’s colour is explained in the poem to match the blood that one could see building in Bronwen’s throat. I had been told a massive burst of blood would mark her death. That’s not what happened, but I was aware that it might.” Smart saw her friend’s life slip away in the darkness of a lunar eclipse. The excruciating heartache and sense of unbearable loss she felt at that moment is almost palpable as she writes, “while all others round about me/watched the marvel in space/I watched you die/gripping my baby to my chest/I let you go over and over/still breathing the possibility of a miracle.”
In, “The Sound of the Birds,” Smart includes an additional untitled poem that I will, for the purposes of this essay, refer to as “Whip-poor-will.” Whip-poor-will has two sections, each placed at either end like bookends, and reads almost like a love song. It speaks to the longing for the sounds of a friend, their particular voice, and the loss of “intimate acquaintance” through death—the deepest silence. Smart laments, “even the stars seem aloof/and you are not here, dear night bird/you are gone/the stillness is a room I’ve moved into/like the clothes I will wear/to ward off colder weather/a cape of loneliness/the dark heart of a night without song.”
Canada—truly, the world—lost an incredibly gifted writer and passionate social activist when Bronwen Wallace died, but Carolyn Smart also lost a dear friend and confidant, colleague and trusted mentor. Smart’s efforts to keep Wallace’s memory alive in her continued involvement with the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award, and through her own speaking engagements, writing, and poetry, speaks not only to the testament of friendship between these two incredibly gifted Canadian poets, but also to the unfailing support to be found within the Canadian writing community, and the deep commitment women writers often have to each other, both privately and publically.
Bronwen Wallace “wrote about ordinary women’s lives in a way that uplifted and revealed what to me had always appeared ineffable, and she appeared to do it with such ease,” Carolyn Smart confides. “She was on the verge of a massive career in literature, likely through extended fiction as well as poetry, and to see that stolen from her through a mismanaged and extremely painful illness was a heartbreak I will never recover from. I cannot NOT write about her; I cannot NOT honour the woman for whom over 800 crammed a theatre in downtown Kingston to remember and weep for her, a woman who had changed so many lives, a few days after her death in 1989.”
As both a woman and a writer, I understand this impulse, the urgency to record, honour, and remember through words. For myself, sometimes the only way out of the pain, fear, and anger involves the act of writing it out in verse. Poetry happens when pain meets pleasure, sorrow meets joy, life meets death, heart meets mind, soul meets page. It’s a language all its own, private and personal, yet simultaneously universal. A poet, sensitive to the nuances of everyday life, feels the loss of death deeply and seeks to release the dark shadows in order to reveal the light. The sense of community and friendship among women, among writers, and especially among women writers is crucial, because it is through support, encouragement, and love that we find the courage to use our voices and the strength needed to persevere.
Perhaps nobody can live forever. But I would say that, if you’re lucky enough to be loved by a writer, there is a good chance you will be immortalized in some way. For there is no other choice available, no other veritable way to heal and face the future for someone who builds their entire world on words, than to write about their love and loss.
“Some people are a country/and their deaths displace you/Everything you shared with them/reminds you of it: part of you in exile/for the rest of your life.”
The author wishes to extend a deep and heartfelt “Thank You” to Carolyn Smart for her generous and invaluable assistance with this project. Find out more about Carolyn at: http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/smart/index.htm
*This essay first appeared on Living the Dream blog*
Faulkner, Arwen. Interview with Carolyn Smart. Interview. Ottawa, 2014. Document.
Smart, Carolyn. “The Way To Come Home.” Smart, Carolyn. The Way To Come Home. London, ON: Brick Books, 1992.
Wallace, Brownen. Common Magic. Canada: Oberon Press, 1985. Book.
Youtube. Carolyn Smart on Keeping Brownwen Wallace’s Memory Alive. May 2014. Online.