Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
6:59 AM 9th April 2023

Poem Of The Week: Anaesthesia By Anne Stevenson (1933-2020)


They slip away who never said goodbye,
My vintage friends so long depended on
To warm deep levels of my memory.
And if I cared for them, care has to learn
How to grieve sparingly and not to cry.
Age is an exercise in unconcern,
An anaesthetic, lest the misery
Of fresh departures make the final one
Unwelcome. There’s a white indemnity
That with the first frost tamps the garden down.
There’s nothing we can do but let it be.
And now this you and now that she is gone,
There’s less and less of me that needs to die.
Nor do those vacant spaces terrify.

The formal styling of British-American poet Anne Stevenson’s poem makes an irony of her theme. For this meticulously appointed, discursive sonnet for lives gone, and for those to follow, is about a retreat towards the anaesthetic numbness of age, towards a kind of self-protecting ‘unconcern’.

Surfeits of grief ill prepare us for our own demise. Stevenson’s skilful argument, rendered in rolling iambics that imitate the living pulse and in so doing shield the ageing against the fearful connotations of approaching quietus, suggests that the process is almost autonomic: a defensive 'endorphin' infusion to accompany the absolute separation of death.

And the end of grief, envisioned here in the sepulchral white of a frozen landscape, might also be death; the space vacated by the grieving is a cold creeping towards nothingness, and in Stevenson’s perfect, resonant phrase, ‘white indemnity’, we acquire an easeful means of exit.

‘Anaesthesia’ is taken from Staying Human: New Poems for Staying Alive, published by Bloodaxe Books (2020) and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the publisher.

‘Anaesthesia’ originally appeared in Completing the Circle, published by Bloodaxe (2020)

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