Michel Faber writes in his foreword to Undying: A Love Story that before his wife died, he “hadn’t known such need for poetry.”
The need to write poetry is similar to, yet distinct, from the need to read it. It is because of this that I am unsure whether or not to recommend this stunning yet heart-wrenching book to someone who is coping with his or her own loss. However, the purpose of poetry is not to make the reader feel good, but to make the reader feel something, an aim which Faber undoubtedly accomplishes.
This book contains a seemingly impossible articulation of so many of the tender, scary, and confusing moments leading up to and following the loss of a loved one to cancer. It goes beyond just mourning for a loved one and into the intricacies of the disease.
‘Lucy’ describes the searing physical harm of cancer. ‘Remission’ shows the medicalisation of the everyday. ‘Such a Simple Thing I Could Have Fixed’ touches on the loss of the mundane, the neglect of regular household chores. Each of these moments is coloured by vulnerable, personal experience.
The reader is afforded no emotional respite. Before experiencing my own first loss, I remember a teacher trying to describe it to my classroom: “It is not just missing someone once, but constantly. Over days and weeks and years, reaching out to a person in your mind only to realise that they are no longer there.” This book challenges this simplification, constantly uncovering the complexities of every facet of loss. Clichéd yet significant moments of confrontation with mortality are recorded alongside poems that show how mortal illness can cheapen friendships: making it difficult for those who do not understand or wish to immerse themselves in your condition to connect with you authentically.
Faber explains at the beginning that the poems are not presented in the order that they were written, but rather “in their appropriate place in the narrative of losing and grieving for Eva.” Milestones are beautifully captured in some poems while others show the loss over time. ‘Darling Little Dress’ captures Eva’s slow transition from playfully being convinced that a size 14 dress is, “more like a 12,” to “it would go well with your hair -/no, not the brown you have on now.”
‘My First Date Without You’ captures the sense of abandonment in a first date with another women, strikingly characterised as, “without you”. Later in the poem, Faber describes taking a walk “in the sunshine without you”. In this way he paints each moment after the loss of Eva as cruel and unusual.
While this Dutch poet is consistently heart-rending, his language and voice are inconsistent. However, in retrospect you hardly notice this while immersed in his journey. Overall, moreso than any other poetry collection I have read, this one tells a story.
Unfortunately, the story is a true one and it beautifully conveys a reality that for many may be too painful to confront.
Undying: A Love Story by Michel Faber (Canongate 2016)
Photo courtesy of Canongate