The Poetry of Remembrance | Yizkor Yom Kippur 5778
Delivered by Senior Rabbi Rachel Timoner
Sara’s mother used to read to her at night when she was scared. “In the great green room, there was a telephone and a red balloon. And a picture of – a cow jumping over the moon. And there were three little bears sitting on chairs….and a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush and a quiet old lady whispering hush. Goodnight room. Goodnight moon. Goodnight cow jumping over the moon goodnight light and the red balloon, goodnight bears goodnight chairs, ….goodnight little mouse and goodnight house, goodnight comb and goodnight brush, goodnight nobody and goodnight mush, and goodnight to the old lady whispering hush…”
So that now, whenever Sara hears Goodnight Moon, whenever she reads it to her own children, she can’t help but remember her mom’s voice soothing her to sleep.
At the dinner table, Deborah’s father used to regale them with the poems he memorized in school:
To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing them, to die, to sleep.
He would recite: Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. And sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler, long I stood. And looked down one as far as I could. (Frost)
And: I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills, when all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils; (Wordsworth)
And: Hope is the thing with feathers—that perches in the soul –and sings the tune without the words – and never stops at all. (Dickinson)
So that now, any time Deborah hears Shakespeare or Frost or Wordsworth or Dickinson she thinks of her father and those long evenings around the table lit up with his remembered words.
Edward Hirsh said, “Implicit in poetry is the notion that we are deepened by heartbreaks, that we are not so much diminished but enlarged by grief, by our refusal to vanish – to let others vanish – without leaving a verbal record. Poetry is a stubborn art. The poet is one who … is determined to leave a trace ….”
What if everyone we ever loved was a kind of poet, recording the meaning of their lives in their art of living, stubbornly determined to leave a trace? What if the poems they wrote with their lives linger still within us? What if we really are not so much diminished but enlarged by our grief, and deepened by our heartbreak? And their poetry, their refusal to vanish, reminds us of just how big and wide our love really is.
Joe remembers that his wife used to always say: “Surprises make me happy.” “You never know what will happen next.” It was a terrible surprise when she died. But now, whenever something unexpected happens, something he likes or does not like, her words are in him and he considers whether surprises could make him happy too.
Eric’s brother took hundreds of photographs of keyholes. Whenever anyone would ask “Why key holes?” His brother would answer: “I want you to imagine what’s on the other side.” Eric can’t really imagine where his brother is now, what’s on the other side of life and death. When he tries he just sees blackness. But whenever he sees a keyhole, he remembers his brother, and the possibility that there is another world through that door.
Frances’s son was a writer. When he grew up he wrote books and articles for magazines. But her favorite things he ever wrote were his birthday cards to her, especially from when he was young. “Dear Mom, I love you. Do you see the sky and the sun and the clouds and the birds? They’re all smiling to you because they’re so glad you were born.” Frances aches over the death of her son, but some days when the sun is out or she sees a cloud against the sky or a bird gets her attention in a nearby tree, she imagines that they’re smiling at her and thinks of her dear son and how he loved her.
Fred’s father used to visit a neighbor who was blind. He would run some errands for his blind friend and then sit and talk, listening to stories, and every time after a visit Fred’s father would say, “I learned something today.” Now when Fred sees a blind person he thinks of his dad. When he hears of someone helping out a neighbor or does so himself, he thinks of his dad. And anytime he’s aware of being around someone wise, of having learned something, he thinks of his dad.
Cheryl’s friend would say: “Don’t ever forget: the most important question is not why or what or how or when, but who?” Those words stayed with Cheryl for years, long after her friend died. And now, whenever she’s aware of how much she loves the people around her, she remembers her wise friend.
There are poems written on our bones, on our eyelids, on the backs of our hands, in underside of our feet. There is poetry dancing around our heads and in the space between our thoughts: the imprints of the people we love. Their cadence, meter and rhyme are on our tongues. Our dreams are made of their metaphors.
Stuart Kestenbaum writes, “The light snow started late last night and continued all night long while I slept and could hear it occasionally enter my sleep, where I dreamed my brother was alive again and possessing the beauty of youth, aware that he would be leaving again shortly and that is the lesson of the snow falling and of the seeds of death that are in everything that is born:
we are here for a moment of a story that is longer than all of us and few of us remember, the wind is blowing out of someplace we don’t know, and each moment contains rhythms within rhythms, and if you discover some old piece of your own writing, or an old photograph, you may not remember that it was you and even if it was you, it’s not you now, not this moment that the synapses fire and your hands move to cover your face in a gesture of grief and remembrance.”
What are the rhythms within your rhythms, what is the you that is not you, what is the old piece of your own writing that you didn’t know was yours?
Molly Worthen wrote recently in the New York Times making the case that we should all begin to memorize poetry again, “Since ancient times, humans have memorized and recited poetry,” she writes. “Before the invention of writing, the only way to possess a poem was to memorize it. Long after scrolls and folios supplemented our brains, court poets, priests, and wandering bards recited poetry. For individuals, a poem learned by heart could be a lifeline…”1
Perhaps, in the lives of those you’ve loved and lost, there are verses you no longer need. Perhaps there are stanzas you wish were never written. But somewhere in the body of work, is there poetry you’ve memorized that could be a lifeline?
When people used to memorize poetry, they would walk around with a poem tucked inside a pocket, for easy reference, to return to it again and again, to learn it and remember. If you could write the poem of your loved one’s life on a slip of paper, what would it say? What would the words be? If you could carry their life-poem in your pocket, for easy reference, when would you take it out and unfold it? And what would it teach you? When you returned to it again and again, would it remind you of who you are and who you’re meant to be?
Yehuda Amichai wrote: “The memory of my father is wrapped in white paper, like sandwiches taken for a day at work. Just as a magician takes towers and rabbits out of his hat, he drew love from his small body, and the rivers of his hands overflowed with good deeds.”
Consider the words and deeds of your loved ones as poetry you have learned by heart. As you sit here on this Yom Kippur questioning what your life is made of and how you choose to live, imagine that their life-poems are tucked inside your pocket, there for easy reference, to study and learn, to recite and live, to remind you that grief enlarges you and heartbreak deepens you, and your refusal to let them vanish leads you on.
1Memorize that Poem!, New York Times Sunday Review, August 26, 2017