Comfort and Community: The Power of Words

Two and a half weeks ago, we attended a memorial service for a dear friend. Our friend was very close to a young poet named Jennifer Bates, and Jennifer wrote the eulogy, a glorious prose poem that evoked the essence of our departed friend and for that moment, brought her back to hold in our hearts. It was a well attended service in a Vermont funeral home. As Jennifer read, listeners periodically nodded and wiped away tears.

Afterwards at a reception, we asked Jennifer about her poetry career – she had a book of poems published by the University of Florida in 1998. She said she has not found the energy to gather up a new collection of poems for another venture into publishing. Anyway, Jennifer added, “It doesn’t get better than this.” By this, she meant reading her work to an audience, who completely understood it and deeply appreciated it. It was one of these rare occasions when writer and audience were on the exact same page.

We felt privileged to have been there, to have shared in the experience and allowed it give to voice to our grief. Words are so important at times like that – and they do not have to be hitched to a publisher’s star to work their magic.

We are not going to share Jennifer’s eulogy with you because it wouldn’t have the same resonance in any other place or time. But here, from her book, FIRST NIGHT OUT OF EDEN, is more of her work:

To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to This

It’s never been easy between us, but here
in these wicker chairs,
rain falling just beyond the screens,
your words knit the air:                                                           jenn
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No memories yet.
You’re planning to write your lost story
as it unknots at your touch.

A friend once told me:
if you can’t assign logical meaning
to a character in your dream,
you must assume it represents an aspect of yourself.
Dear friend, I am still writing my story
so if I give you advice, listen only
to the thorny, cardamom-sweet
throb of empathy under my words.
Listen to my hand on your arm.

You will find that nothing
is as they told you. You will find
that nothing is as you imagined,
turning back
past the locked doors
down the narrowing passage of childhood
which once seemed an open field.

The rope of memory frays,
but the story is there, whole, at the core.
Remember, as you go,
your raveled voice speaking over the rain
as we sit here, now, in the wicker chairs,
the vaulted roof over our heads.
Remember your voice
telling me this
as I listened, and the rain.