Undying: A Love Story by Michel Faber

41hICu+LvaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I put off reading Undying because I was afraid my usually stone-cold cynical heart could not cope with it. From the queasy raw intensity of his genre defying masterpiece Under the Skin, to the sweeping Victorian expanse of The Crimson Petal and the White, something about Michel Faber’s writing grabs me utterly. His directness of tone and immersive descriptions are a heady combination – and one that made his first slim volume of poetry slightly frightening. Undying chronicles Faber’s attempts to process the six-year battle with cancer; death; and absence of, his beloved wife of 26 years Eva.

How can you say goodbye to the love of your life? How can you reconcile the wonder of finding your perfect partner with the horror of losing them in slow motion? These poems are tender and devastating – there is a vulnerability and a rawness to them that shredded my heart. Read them – and then hug your lover close, call your mother, grab your pet and give it a big snuggle – be thankful you are alive. Faber doesn’t shirk from depicting the ravages of cancer, but even the darkest of these poems are suffused with hope and love. For me, the darkest poems come after Eva has passed, as Faber struggles to adjust to a world without her in it.

All I can do, in what remains of my brief time,
is mention, to whoever cares to listen,
that a woman once existed, who was kind
and beautiful and brave, and I will not forget
how the world was altered, beyond recognition,
when we met.

Above all, these are love poems, in the deepest truest sense of the word. I read my first Michel Faber novel 17 years ago, and read all his fiction published since. I never really thought about his private life until I heard his announcement that he would not write any more fiction after Eva’s death and the publication of The Book of Strange New Things. After reading Undying, I feel I know Eva – that she was extraordinary, and that the world is a poorer place in her absence. These poems are more than a searing testimony of grief, they are a celebration of the impact we can make in life, the death-defying ripples of a life lived in kindness:

You worked covertly, nurturing by stealth.
You lifted people up, nudged them to transcend
their limitations…
You’re dead. I know. And it is not for me
to show you death is not the end.
But you left lucencies of grace secreted in the world,
still glowing.

Serious Concerns/Family Values

 

wendyAcademia in my country has a lot to answer for. For one, hardly anyone can speak the national language despite being taught it for the entirety of the primary and secondary curriculum. For another, the majority of people seem to leave school terrified of poetry.  This fear cuts people off from what could be the most rewarding interaction with the printed word they will ever have. In the aptly titled essay “How to Enjoy Poetry” award-winning poet and novelist James Dickey expressed it best:

The first thing to understand about poetry is that it comes to you from outside you, in books or in words, but that for it to live, something from within you must come to it and meet it and complete it. Your response with your own mind and body and memory and emotions gives a poem its ability to work its magic; if you give to it, it will give to you, and give plenty.

Yeah, you might encounter poetry that is turgid/pointless/stilted/boring/you utterly despise. You might have even been forced to analyse poems that were all of these in school. But cutting poetry out of your life because of that is like never listening to music again because your niece had a Barney CD she played on loop from ages two to five and you were trapped in the house with her. Trust me on this – when you find poems that speak to you, they speak to the core of you. They then wait loyally for you to pick them up again and tap into who you were when you read them last, and feel how much you have changed since then. If you have favourite songs – trust me, you have favourite poems. You just haven’t found them yet.

While I tend more to enjoy individual poems rather than ‘follow’ poets, I have a few  poets I am always happy to revisit and I’m an unabashed fan of Wendy Cope. She’s not the most prolific, but her keen eye when observing the everyday and mundane means I often return to her relatively slight output. The verse may be light but the subjects addressed can be weighty, and despite the surface simplicity Cope is extremely technically skilled, employing the full range of traditional rhymed forms. So if someone snobbishly tells you it’s not ‘real’ poetry – they know less than you or her.. feel free to point that out to them. She reminds me of Philip Larkin, and if you know me you’ll know that’s high praise indeed.

I just revisited  her 1992 collection Serious Concerns, and was delightfully reminded how, pre Bridget Jones, Cope was capturing singleton cringe and angst when no one else bothered to… See ‘Bloody Men’ or the exquisitely succinct:

Two Cures for Love

  1. Don’t see him. Don’t phone or write a letter.
  2. The easy way: get to know him better.

It’s not all sardonic with Cope, and my favourite of her poems in that collection is as refreshing and evocative of warmth as the titular fruit:

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