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Personal Choice 41

Jon Silkin

Death of a Son

who died in a mental hospital aged one

Something has ceased to come along with me.

Something like a person: something very like one.

And there was no nobility in it

Or anything like that.

Something was there like a one year

Old house, dumb as stone. While the near buildings

Sang like birds and laughed

Understanding the pact

They were to have with silence. But he

Neither sang nor laughed. He did not bless silence

Like bread, with words.

He did not forsake silence.

But rather, like a house in mourning

Kept the eye turned in to watch the silence while

The other houses like birds

Sang around him.

And the breathing silence neither

Moved nor was still.

I have seen stones: I have seen brick

But this house was made up of neither bricks nor stone

But a house of flesh and blood

With flesh of stone

And bricks for blood. A house

Of stones and blood in breathing silence with the other

Birds singing crazy on its chimneys.

But this was silence,

This was something else, this was

Hearing and speaking though he was a house drawn

Into silence, this was

Something religious in his silence,

Something shining in his quiet,

This was different this was altogether something else:

Though he never spoke, this

Was something to do with death.

And then slowly the eye stopped looking

Inward. The silence rose and became still.

The look turned to the outer place and stopped,

With the birds still shrilling around him.

And as if he could speak

He turned over on his side with his one year

Red as a wound

He turned over as if he could be sorry for this

And out of his eyes two great tears rolled, like stones,

and he died.

Jon Silken

Born in London to Jewish immigrants, Jon Silkin (1930–1997) lived in London until World War II, when he was evacuated to Wales. He studied at Wycliffe College and Dulwich College. Silkin is the author of over 30 poetry collections and translations. Silkin’s poems often focus on his Jewish identity, a sense of dislocation, and the divide between humankind and nature. Silkin edited anthologies of poetry written in response to World War I, including Out of Battle (1978) and The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (1979). In 1952, Silkin founded the magazine Stand, which he edited.

One of the most difficult tasks of the poet is to write about tragedy without sentimentality or maudlin. One of the most difficult tasks of the teacher is to assist students of poetry with this same lesson. Silkin’s poem is for me an exemplar of how to achieve this seamlessly.


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