Personal Choice 41
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.
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.