I’m now at the point where shame has tipped me past grief, and I’ve actually started the tangible work of putting together Helen’s final collection.
I know, I’ve “started work” on this many many times in the months since she died. But it’s incredible how physically as well as mentally difficult it is to get myself past the point of just sitting on the floor, surrounded by bits of paper with her writing on them. Her words. Her poems. Many of which I’ve known intimately, since Helen first drafted them. Amongst her papers are poems covered with notes from our crit group sessions, as well as the notes we made working together, just the two of us. And her own notes to herself, underlining something someone had commented on, or suggesting a possible new word or phrase, or approach. Or occasionally just a small, neat blue cross, where she didn’t agree with whoever it was. Even in her dissent, she was compassionate. (You don’t want to know the sorts of things that I write in those situations.)
The thing that finally broke through the inertia was other day, when I realised I’d been sitting there reading through her poems and saying the same phrase over and over for about an hour. Not something from her poems. Not even “I miss you”, which would make sense. Just “I love you”. Over and over. Strange, isn’t it? I wasn’t doing it intentionally. Just … that’s what kept tumbling from my lips. I love you. The last words we said to each other. Not sure who was saying them to whom this time round. But there are worse things to take as nudge from the universe.
So I now have A Plan, and A Timetable, and A Set of Tasks To Work Through Systematically. Lots of concerns still – I need to make this as strong a collection as is possible. I need to balance the edits I think need making with the edits she would have made herself – it’s her book, not mine, and I have to keep it that way. I need to shape it to make the most of every poem. I need to find a way of dealing with the fact that 90% of the poems have birds in them …
But I have a working title. And an opening epigraph. I found it by chance, on the back of an old bank statement. It’s incredibly Helen:
When you hear the birds’ urgent evening clatter
then you know it’s time to sing before the dark.
So that’s my working title: Time to Sing Before the Dark. Hard not to read it as (at least a little) valedictory, but that’s ok. The dark isn’t always frightening. And song isn’t always happy. Helen’s poems are full of light and song and fierceness and shadows and flight and dance and lust and death and joy … life.
Now I just have to do them justice.