Box full of darkness


We are fast approaching the shortest day.  Thank goodness – or at least I do – for the distraction of Christmas and the gift of bright, cold weather in Kent that lifts the spirits.  Not long to go until the solstice, Christmas itself and then the New Year. I like the fresh-start feeling of January and by February, spring is on the way, at least in the garden.

Mary Oliver’s 2006 collection, Thirst, is direct and powerful in its depiction of the despair of grief and yearning for God.  It includes a four line poem called The Uses of Sorrow which strikes a chord of recognition whenever I’ve brought it to groups. It’s also ‘gone viral’ and appears as a prose quote all over the internet.  The central image is ‘a box full of darkness’.

As well as the literal darkness and the predictable low mood that comes with it for lots of us, specific and personal boxes of darkness seem to be handed out at this time of year.  Some are not unexpected such as the passing of elderly relatives, although in my experience, it is impossible to know in advance how such losses will be experienced.  Other boxes of darkness are so surprising, it’s hard to believe they exist.  We find ourselves peering into them and shaking our heads in disbelief.  These are very different from a slow disengagement from life – more like major stars suddenly disappearing from constellations so that suddenly old patterns no longer apply. There have been a couple of those in the past weeks – one person close to me, in the prime of his life, and one a dear friend’s sister who was the mother of four young children.  The uses of such sorrows are impossible to see at this stage.

I had a discussion with a friend about strategies for winter.  Getting into the light is a big one for me and one way of doing that is to go to the cinema.  I don’t have television (too many palpable designs) and I like the collective nature of film. Yesterday there were just fifty of us dotted around the auditorium for Ceylan’s latest masterpiece Winter Sleep (the Turkish could also be translated as ‘hibernation’) with a strong sense of expectation and focus. The film was magnificent, bleak and the glimmers of hope were literally glimmers.  In many ways, whilst addressing the same questions, it was the opposite of Mary Oliver’s precise, tiny poem.  It was well over three hours long, the focus alternating between vast landscapes and the claustrophobic interiors of a Cappadocian dwelling, big moral dilemmas and family bickering. The main protagonists were all flawed, opportunities were missed and there was little resolution. There was also a lot of mud and brilliant acting.  For me, watching the film was hugely cathartic.

In poetry therapy, we talk about the isoprinciple – that art is most satisfying (and by implication, therapeutic) when the mood is congruent with whoever is experiencing it.  There are also other dimensions such as complexity, realism and ambiguity which combine in different ways.  And in our lives, there are boxes of darkness and, again today, bright blue skies, joy and sorrow.