6” x 8” x 1”
In an effort to clean my desk area after four months absence from Italy, I spied something I could perhaps throw away: a very shoddy volume from 1942 of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems. I did not consider myself a marked Brownings fan, though in truth one has to know something before rejecting it. I am guilty of rejecting vast swaths of poetry without basis. So, this $1.50 library sale book bought for my own self-education, with thrashed spine, I decided to weed. I noticed my marginalia and Post-its, marking a few passages of interest. Not capable of using the newly-purchased family scanner, and not willing to trek out to a copy shop, I just tore the yellowed, crumbling, acidic pages from the book. Thumbing further, I stumbled on a poem by Elizabeth Browning that correlated to an experience two hours earlier.
Upon opening my morning email, instead of the usual Internet vocabulary word I subscribe to in “a.word.a.day” by Anu Garg, there was a moving note from a woman named Diane Davis Santoriello, who lost a son in battle in Iraq. She had once asked Anu Garg if there was a word for parents that have lost children. Recently, with the help of the Amish, Diane invented such a word, which applies to any relatives grieving for the presence of their beloved: zeitlanger. This is based on the Pennsylvania Dutch Amish term Zeitlang, cited in a Lancaster newspaper, used by the bereft Amish community longing to see their children lost in the West Nickel Mines School shooting a year ago. The coiner of this word shared it with the other Gold Star Mothers she is in contact with, who all lost children in the Iraq war.
Uncharacteristically, I wrote this grieving mother, a stranger, a letter. I acknowledged the sadness, even guilt, I feel as an American citizen for the permanent trauma and death inflicted upon the casualties of war. I included my own simple thoughts regarding grief, based on personal experiences, and sent her my deepest apology. I did this weeping.
The Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem is titled, “Mother and Poet” (Turin, After News From Gaeta, 1861). It is dedicated to an Italian poet, Laura Savio of Turin, whose two sons were killed with Garibaldi’s troops at Ancona and Gaeta. It was written in the first person, as if the grieving mother herself wrote the poem. The civil war and Unification aspects of this poem do not speak to the war in Iraq, which many people have struggled to understand. As honorable and courageous as the soldiers are in this poem, working for the higher good of a unified Italy, it ends on a note of grief freeing this Italian poet and mother from victory celebrations and poetic elegies:
“If in keeping the feast
You want a great song for your Italy free,
Let none look at me.”
I picture all of the families that will have little to celebrate when wars end.
I decided to send Diane Davis Santoriello the extrapolated pages, or even just an email link to the poem, perhaps to share with other Gold Star Mothers. As I was about to toss the book, I remembered that the Wellesley College Library’s prized Browning Collection. I covered the brittle, battered book in a protective, archival glue, and cut out a compartment inside, shaped in the irregular right-angled rhomboid of a dovecote niche. I lined the irregular rectangle with a collaged narrative extrapolated from the book, and gave it to Wellesley. But what should be stored in the compartment? It occurred to me that an essay narrating the morning’s experiences would be appropriate to put in the niche, or columbarium. I like the association of columbarium with doves, as in a dovecote, but it is also a niche for the ashes of the dead. Doves, or pigeons, are connected to peace and war, carrying messages across battle lines. Shakespeare used the phrase “An eagle in a dovecote” in his play Coriolanus, referring to the slaughter of innocents when a rapacious bird forces entry in the dovecote tower. This unique work, an altered book, is a tribute to mothers of deceased children, and to grief in poetry and war,
in memory of
1st Lt. Neil A. Santoriello
I do not know how to offer comfort to suffering zeitlangers. But I can visualize the once-battered Browning volume open in a library case, exhibited next to an exquisitely printed version of “Mother and Poet”, with an exhibition label detailing the attempt of Neil Santoriello’s mother to describe her, and her family’s, pain.