LIVING ON DEPARTURE

May 12th, 2020

Words by Amanda Kraley · Artwork by Alex Westfall

My grandfather kept more things than I’d even remembered sending

I couldn’t tell if the mail was slow or if it was just my imagination, the sort where anticipation stretches out your sense of time. The letters my grandfather and I had once exchanged finally arrived on my doorstep after passing through a relay race of forwarding addresses. My college years had seemed an unlikely time for us to become pen pals and now, a few years later, a pandemic feels like an unlikely time to mourn his death. 

My grandfather and I only really had three things in common: his nose, his chin, and a love of poetry. I can’t remember how we discovered the third, but it must have come up over the course of our letter correspondence. He wrote in pencil on the back of utility bills and used envelopes, while I alternated between long-winded missives and hastily scribbled notes (“saw this and thought of you!”) on postcards of local landmarks. 

He once told me he liked poetry because anyone could do it; you didn’t need some gatekeeping degree to put words down. Books were elitist — too long and self-indulgent — and crucially lacking in rhyme scheme. He loved a good rhyme. I printed out copies of poetry collections in the library, underlining which I hoped would be his favorites in the table of contents. He sent back drafts of quatrains or couplets, always with lines crossed out, fussed with, rewritten. 

I tried to write a few poems, too, and would send those back in reply, but mostly I stuck to reading them. I preferred reading to writing, and reading prose to reading poetry, though I never mentioned that to him. Poetry requires a degree of sincerity I’ve always found daunting. Other than our correspondence, the only writing I did was saved for workmanlike essays on politics for school, or applications for jobs and scholarships — in short, tactical writing I could improve on with practice, which followed a logical procedure. Papers were graded. Applications were accepted or rejected. The feedback loop was swift and, at least in my mind at the time, impartial and absolute. What I longed for, embarrassingly, and perhaps why I’ve always preferred prose to poetry, is the comfort of a tidy narrative and clear resolution. Even when I did poorly, which was not infrequent, there was a certain relief in knowing that it was poor. With poetry, the metric of success isn’t the strength of an argument or whether a functional objective has been achieved; it has more to do with feeling. There’s nothing uniform or clinical about its evaluation and it seems you have to wrestle with, accept, maybe even embrace the ambiguity of not knowing whether your work is good or bad. 

My grandfather kept more things than I’d even remembered sending. At the bottom of the box was the last poem we’d exchanged: Rilke’s “Ninth Elegy”, ripped out of my old copy of “Duino Elegies”, the edges jagged where the page had been torn from the spine. It was annotated with his pen, dark lines under certain phrases and small exclamation points in the margins. There were also more poems: different versions of ones I’d seen and new ones from the intervening years when our dialogue had gone quiet. The topics of his poetry remained consistent: time, memory, and imagination. Some poems were sweet. Most were melancholy. I wondered what he would make of our warped sense of time now, watching our social and economic fabric unravel. Would he be at a loss? Or would it feel similar to periods of upheaval he had lived through? What words would he use to make sense of it all? 

“I Hope You Use Words In Your Future. When You Practice They Can Mean Something,” he selectively capitalized and underlined in one letter, responding to my careful language about what I wanted to study, see, and do in the world. I had added, almost as an aside, my deep wish to write something that sounded like myself. These days, I write constantly as a function of my work, but I know that’s not really what he was saying. My approach to language is mostly practical, pumping out words without being too precious about them. But since my grandfather died this has felt like a convenient "out”, a way to produce a lot of something without having much of a personal stake in it, without necessarily doing it better, even when there’s room for improvement. It’s also easy to sidestep feeling when you’re focused purely on outcome. But it’s a weirdly anemic way to live.

I wish I’d asked my grandfather why he wrote poetry, not just why he liked it. I’ve combed through our letters and his annotations, half-convinced I’ll find my answer there. The closest I’ve come is a phrase in “Ninth Elegy”, where he underlined emphatically, “These things that live on departure / understand when you praise them: fleeting, they look for / rescue through something in us, the most fleeting of all.” There is alchemy in the naming of things. The very act of documenting can be a form of praise, an ode to the existence of whatever is being recorded, even if it’s something as everyday as the relationship between a young woman and her grandfather. I’m trying my hand at it now, honoring this bond with him by writing these words, as though our connection, too, lives on departure.

Amanda Kraley is a writer and researcher based in Washington, D.C. You can find her @amandakraley on Twitter

Alex Westfall is an image-maker from Manila. She is currently based in Providence, Rhode Island, and you can find some of her work at www.alexwestfall.com

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