Claire Åkebrand: October is Plush, but Only Fleetingly So

From Ellen Beth's Image Athenaeum on Flickr

Anthology Poet Highlight 42/82: Claire Åkebrand, “October Plush” (scroll down)

Like the violet at its center, the texture of Claire’s “October Plush” is lush, but only fleetingly so. The poet runs her words like fingers over the flower’s petals, pausing in her passing by to notice the beauty of the transient subject at her feet. For although the violet can’t get up and walk and although most species of violet are perennials—meaning the plant will be back next season—the flower is transient nonetheless: with the onset of autumn its petals “deflate” and it becomes increasingly “eager / for every last / hour of sun” because light is one of the only things that can extend its waning life. And as the earth tilts the flower’s bed away from direct sunlight and towards winter, the violet’s reaching will ultimately be futile. It is, as the poet acknowledges, “dying.”

But, as the poet also acknowledges by pressing the violet into her poem as someone might press it between the pages of a book, there is beauty in this transience. And melancholy as that beauty may be, it’s still worth memorializing, if only because our words, we hope, will ward off death.

Looking into the eyes of our dead, standing and weeping over their bodies, holding their vesseled remains, watching their ashes circle to the earth—language rises to the tongue. We gather at viewings and funerals and wakes to sing and to pray, to embrace and to share memories, to clothe the spirit of grief in the language of praise. We write biographies, elegies, epitaphs, obituaries, sermons, odes. All in our attempts to address and to fill the absence left in our lives when someone or something we care about dies. Because, as Marcel Duchamp said, ironically enough on his own gravestone: “It’s always other people who die.” And maybe if we dress them in words as we dress them for burial the ironies of our shared mortality won’t trail us to the grave.

Maybe our words will remain and grant us all some measure of immortality.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge hoped as much. We have record of this hope in his short poem “Epitaph”: “Stop, Christian passer-by!” he says, acknowledging the transient nature of mortality. “Stop, child of God, / And read [my epitaph] with gentle breast”—because, he seems to be saying, with each reading of this epitaph I “find life in death.” My presence, housed in my words, passes to another generation. Yet, as they always will, in the presence of death words ultimately fail him. They can no more give us another life than they can ward off death. At most, perhaps, they can call forth and embody memories, which can in turn give us hope of reunion. But maybe language and memories and hope are enough to help us meet the gaze of death without giving way to despair.

Hence the poet’s benediction to “October Plush.” After parting ways with the curbside violet, which in the world of this poem becomes an anthropomorphized representation of every “dying thing” the poet “love[s],” she elevates her language to prayer in hopes of warding off the slow violence of entropy: “God Almighty,” she prays, “might this violence / not follow me into the shadows of my home, of winter.” Despite this prayer, she certainly knows that death will follow her; but that’s not the real irony at play here. The real irony arises out of the fact that, although Almighty God won’t keep the violence of entropy from slowly wearing the poet’s body and everything she loves to dust, he will eventually answer her prayer—and the many others like it that are prayed everyday—by speaking the words that will reverse the world’s entropic flow and raise the poet and the poet’s beloved to immortality. So even though the language we use in mortality is often ineffectual—including, of course, at making us immortal—the Divine Expression, the Word made flesh will, in the end, actually ward off death.

And there’s no language, no poetry—no poesis—more powerful than that.