Names

Sombre post this evening.  I’m just back from the Requiem Eucharist for All Soul’s Day at Canterbury Cathedral.  The weather is properly autumnal, cold, misty, leaves gusting along the lanes and alleys of the old city and the floodlit cathedral, fuzzily magnificent.

The setting was the famous one by Gabriel Faure.  He’s quoted on wikipedia as saying, ‘ It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience.’  For me, the music moves from painful and poignant to the comforting In Paradisum, but I wouldn’t call it happy.

At the Commemoration, an alphabetical list of names of the ‘faithful departed’ was read out and, as is often seen on war memorials, there were sequences of people sharing the same surname. Inevitably, I mentally filled in the names of my own departed loved ones (not all of whom could be called faithful).

I had a message today from a friend on Long Island.  It’s been cold and they’ve only just got power back after days of trying to keeping warm with a fire of damp logs.  Pizza places are doing a great trade as they have gas ovens apparently.  More worryingly, there’s looting, many people in Lower Manhatten are without clean water as well as power and whole areas of Staten Island have been wiped out by fire and flood.  People who’ve decamped to hotels are now having to pay double or move out as participants in the New York Marathon arrive.  And now, pictures of Cuba and other poorer countries suffering too are circulating.

Billy Collins’ famous poem The Names, names some of the many who lost their lives in 9/11.  It’s a good example of a list poem and also an alphabet poem – the apparent arbitrariness of alphabetical order makes a good container for those losses that threaten to overwhelm us.

The speaking aloud of the names in the mass today gave emphasis to the importance of individuals.  When I kept chickens, I made the mistake of naming them which made their loss harder to bear.  The 800 million chickens killed each year in the UK (that’s 2.5 milion a day), are, for better or worse, nameless.

Anna Akhmatova in her poem Requiem, in memory of the millions who perished under Stalin, laments the absence of names:

I should like to call you all by name,
But they have lost the lists…
I have, woven for them a great shroud
Out of the poor words I overheard them speak.
I remember them always and everywhere,
And if they shut my tormented mouth,
Through which a hundred million of my people cry,
Let them remember me also…

trans D. M. Thomas

Poetry is a great shroud – something that screens, conceals and protects us from the unbearable.