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The Companionship of Loss

Jayne English

Sunset on the Seine at Lavacourt, Winter Effect - Claude Monet

Sunset on the Seine at Lavacourt, Winter Effect
- Claude Monet

You are frightened
when you first realize something
is gone, when the strings that hold now
to then are snapped, leaving you
somewhere above ground with nowhere to land,
nothing to hold onto.
   —James Langlas

From my desk in the laundry room, I can watch the sunset as it stretches across the sky toward my north-facing door. Each sunset is the waning of a day, just one of the repeated patterns of loss in our lives. Loss is a near constant companion to us all. Even in a newborn’s first moments he begins to lose time. From then on, loss shadows us. The turtle dies, whose tiny movements we watched from above his plastic island and tap-water bay; the bird we rescued from a parking lot never unfolds his wings again; we lose our first grandparent; and one day we walk out the door of our childhood home into the beckoning world.

Loss is always with us, but what kind of companion is it? Surely, we each view it differently, and we view it differently from our varying vantage points in life. In James Langlas’ poem, quoted above, loss has an unanchored feel to it, “nowhere to land,/nothing to hold onto.” He writes it as an elegy to memory, the end of the poem a weighted lament, “that life /all comes down to this:/It’s not what you have known,/but what you have forgotten.”

In “Youth and Age,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge looks at loss as less of a drowning than Langlas but with every bit as much panic, characterizing it in his poem with 14 exclamation points. He contemplates the betrayal of a body “that does me grievous wrong” through aging, and what’s lost of independence and boldness:

Like those trim skiffs, unknown of yore,
On winding lakes and rivers wide,
That ask no aid of sail or oar,
That fear no spite of wind or tide!

Others have made a comfortable companion of loss, rocking on the porch with it in the evening. Czeslaw Milosz’ poem “Late Ripeness” runs in similar themes as Coleridge’s poem, talking about things that are no more, “One after another my former lives were departing,/like ships, together with their sorrow.” But the two take different directions. Coleridge runs headlong into age’s sorrows:

Where no hope is, life's a warning
That only serves to make us grieve,
When we are old:
That only serves to make us grieve
With oft and tedious taking-leave,

When Milosz speaks of losing loved ones over time, his words reveal the ache of gain in sorrow, “grief and pity joined us.” We lose loved ones, but he sees the loss as drawing us together under a kindred burden with those who remain. Coleridge speaks of “no hope,” while Milosz writes:

I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.

This clarity helped him see things in life “ready now to be described better than they were before.” Coleridge’s poem grieves loss. There is grief in Milosz’s poem, too, but what rises to the top is gratefulness for what remains of a meaningful life, even “as late as the approach of my ninetieth year.”

In his short poem “Memory of the Loss of Wings,” W. S. Merwin describes it this way:

An hour comes
to close a door behind me
the whole of night opens before me

From my door I watch a sunset transition through some surprising colors, orange, violet, blue. I imagine coming to terms with loss is a process, and as we go through it we’ll feel all the shades and nuanced meanings these poets express. But maybe sooner than later, we’ll see loss suffused with wonder; the possibilities of Milosz’s open door, and Merwin’s starlit night before us.