The loss of a loved one alongside whom we have grown in physical rather than solely emotional space, someone like a father, is not the same as the loss of someone we have felt deeply about from a distance, like a writer or musician. The reason for this is what interests me.
When an admired songwriter or storyteller dies, all we ever had of them – their work – continues to be present in its entirety. It is true that something remains of a lost father too, since he has disappeared only from the physical realm, and I may go on hearing his voice, and replying in kind, long after he’s gone. But this conversing with the dead does not compensate the physical loss. I may conjure up my father in words, argue with him still, come to love him more than before, but something of my embodied experience of him is forever beyond reach: the smell of watch oil on his craftsman’s fingers; the skin on the back of his hands, as thin to the touch as tissue paper; the trace of his hard and brittle backbone in that final embrace. The words and songs of Leonard Cohen have long meant much to me, but the death of a ladies’ man last year did not deprive me of things such as these.
I thought of all this the other day while reading a book by John Berger. Since his recent death, I realised, he has become more, not less, present in my life, his work now occupying a little bookshelf of its own. I have gained, not lost. One of the things I have gained is a renewed curiosity in familiar things. This morning, while walking a stony trail through the scrubland to the west of town, I spotted my first wild poppy of the year. I crouched down to take a closer look and thought of what Berger says about poppies in the first few lines of his story, Once In Europa. How the hard shell of the poppy’s calyx is split open by nothing more than “a screwed-up ball of membrane-thin folded petals like rags”. Petals whose colour changes, in their unfolding, “from neonate pink to the most brazen scarlet”, the colour of my first poppy. “It is”, writes Berger, “as if the force that split the calyx were the need of this red to become visible and to be seen”. It is, I thought, crouching still, as if this red were the colour of what matters, of all that’s worth remembering. Tissue-paper petals, so delicate, such force.