“Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” Rilke wrote in contemplating the most difficult and rewarding existential art: befriending our own finitude. I have been sitting with Rilke, awash in the tidal waves of sorrow and love, in the wake of losing my beloved friend Emily Levine (October 23, 1944–February 3, 2019) — philosopher, comedian, universe-builder, beautiful soul — who made me fall in love with poetry long ago and without whom there would be no Universe in Verse and no Figuring. (Emily rightfully occupies the first line of the book’s acknowledgements.)
Ever since her terminal diagnosis in 2016, and up until just three weeks before her death, I have been taking Emily for what we came to call our “poetry retreats” — brief periodic respites by the ocean, where we would spend unhurried time in the company of a few other beloved women, reading poetry, cooking, conversing, and just being — with our joys, with our sorrows, with one another. Emily — the most erudite and intellectually voracious person I have ever known — introduced us to classics, many of which she knew by heart: Whitman, Eliot, Yeats, Plath, Rilke. But there was one contemporary poem she especially loved and read for us often: “You Can’t Have It All” by Barbara Ras, from her exquisite and exquisitely titled 1998 poetry collection Bite Every Sorrow (public library).
Now that Emily has returned her stardust to the universe she so cherished, and all the words seem too small to fill the void, poetry stands as the only mode of remembrance that can give shape and space to the amorphous largeness of feeling that is grief. In this sweetly lo-fi recording from one of our gatherings, punctuated by the sound of the ocean and the rustle of page-turning, Emily reads the poem that she, in the deepest sense, lived out and modeled for the rest of us with her largehearted life.
YOU CAN’T HAVE IT ALL
But you can have the fig tree and its fat leaves like clown hands
gloved with green. You can have the touch of a single eleven-year-old finger
on your cheek, waking you at one a.m. to say the hamster is back.
You can have the purr of the cat and the soulful look
of the black dog, the look that says, If I could I would bite
every sorrow until it fled, and when it is August,
you can have it August and abundantly so. You can have love,
though often it will be mysterious, like the white foam
that bubbles up at the top of the bean pot over the red kidneys
until you realize foam’s twin is blood.
You can have the skin at the center between a man’s legs,
so solid, so doll-like. You can have the life of the mind,
glowing occasionally in priestly vestments, never admitting pettiness,
never stooping to bribe the sullen guard who’ll tell you
all roads narrow at the border.
You can speak a foreign language, sometimes,
and it can mean something. You can visit the marker on the grave
where your father wept openly. You can’t bring back the dead,
but you can have the words forgive and forget hold hands
as if they meant to spend a lifetime together. And you can be grateful
for makeup, the way it kisses your face, half spice, half amnesia, grateful
for Mozart, his many notes racing one another towards joy, for towels
sucking up the drops on your clean skin, and for deeper thirsts,
for passion fruit, for saliva. You can have the dream,
the dream of Egypt, the horses of Egypt and you riding in the hot sand.
You can have your grandfather sitting on the side of your bed,
at least for a while, you can have clouds and letters, the leaping
of distances, and Indian food with yellow sauce like sunrise.
You can’t count on grace to pick you out of a crowd
but here is your friend to teach you how to high jump,
how to throw yourself over the bar, backwards,
until you learn about love, about sweet surrender,
and here are periwinkles, buses that kneel, farms in the mind
as real as Africa. And when adulthood fails you,
you can still summon the memory of the black swan on the pond
of your childhood, the rye bread with peanut butter and bananas
your grandmother gave you while the rest of the family slept.
There is the voice you can still summon at will, like your mother’s,
it will always whisper, you can’t have it all,
but there is this.
Complement with Emily’s splendid reading of “On the Fifth Day” by Jane Hirshfield, who often graced our poetry retreats with her Buddhist benediction of a presence, then revisit Mary Oliver — one of Emily’s favorite poets, whom she outlived by seventeen days — on the measure of a life well lived and how to live with maximal aliveness.