‘In late ’88, not knowing how lucky I was, / I met a woman who would die of cancer.’ So begins Michel Faber’s Lucky, one of the first poems in this collection written during and after the death of his beloved wife Eva from cancer in June 2014. It’s hard to know what to say: to even read these poems feels like intruding on a raw, agonising grief. To try to review them feels like an insult. How can you review expressions of grief and loss? How can I possibly give fewer than five stars, as if suggesting that Faber’s agony somehow wasn’t quite enough? And yet I did want to write about Undying because, as a collection, this is a very necessary book. Taken together, the poems explore every heartbreaking angle of bereavement in a simple narrative that progresses from diagnosis through treatment and remission, to death and then the dreadful aftermath: the terrifying challenge of trying to rebuild a life without the one you most love by your side.
Faber is absolutely ruthless and reading the poems is like watching him putting his soul through the wringer. This isn’t a gentle and pious collection that turns Eva into some kind of luminous angel, suffering prettily in a white bed. Faber shows us the raw agony of what it’s actually like to see the woman you love waste away, lose her hair, swell up again, suffer lesions, lose her sight. He writes about the desire to keep things normal for as long as possible; the tender, desperate lovemaking that was all the more precious because any time might be the last, a fact that could never be spoken aloud (‘We made love / the second-last time, / always the second-last time, / as many times / as time allowed’). And he writes about his own feelings of helplessness, uselessness and anger: the way that, with the progression of the disease, he learned that he was no longer able to control things but could only be there to read stories, warm socks, feed and soothe.
Complex names of medicines and medical features lend themselves surprisingly well to poetry. Faber devotes a whole poem, Lucencies, to the irony that ‘love’ is such a short, unromantic word, while ‘lucencies’ sound beautiful, beguiling: ‘Resembling fireflies, / these ghostly holes embedded in your skull, / Your humerus, your pelvis and your spine. / The scans and dyes allow each one to shine.‘ He recounts each stage in its grim, unpolished state, observing in Right There on the Floor that nothing in their married life was so intimate as this moment when he stood behind Eva, scissors at the ready to cut her hair, ‘and meticulously / de-sexed you‘: an act that perhaps only a lover can carry out with the full measure of grief, love, compassion and understanding.
The remarkable thing is that Eva herself remains, throughout, strong and brave. She makes jokes, she tries to encourage him. Even when she herself has gone, her influence remains. One of the poems that caught me unexpectedly was Risotto, in which Faber describes sitting down to eat the last portion of frozen risotto that Eva had made (‘how I wish there was enough for more‘). He writes about the minutiae that a bereavement forces upon you: ringing unhelpful helplines to cancel or change accounts; tracking down people for the funeral; the simple agony of being the person walking along the high stress with his wife’s ashes in a nondescript shopping bag. And he writes about his loneliness, his sense of abandonment and his anger. Such anger. And the fact that no one, even the best-intentioned, kindest of friends can really help him. I’m going to quote a whole poem, in fact, Don’t Hesitate to Ask, which sums this up so well:
So many of the people I’ve
informed that she is dead
‘If there’s anything
we can do, anything at all,
don’t hesitate to ask.’
since you offer,
Would you mind driving me
headlong through the universe
at ten million miles an hour,
scattering stars like trashcans
scorching the sky?
Put your foot to the floor,
crash right through the gate of Fate,
trespass galaxies, straight over
black holes and supernovas
to the hideout of God.
Wait for me while I break
down the boardroom door
and drag the high and mighty fucker
out of his conference with Eternity,
his summit on the Mysteries of Life,
and get him to explain to me
why it was so necessary
to torture and humiliate
and finally exterminate
These things I do not say
because I know
that by ‘anything at all’
a cup of tea
or a lift into town
if you’re going
We want to feel that we have some kind of power. Some kind of fallback. ‘I want to speak to the manager!’ we want to cry. But Faber realises, slowly, bitterly, that all he can do is remember. That’s how he can best serve Eva now. He writes, and he seeks out friends and family, even her first husband, in an attempt to greedily absorb all that he can of this restless, brilliant, artistic woman whom he loved. One of the last poems in the book, written on the first anniversary of Eva’s death, wonders why the world should focus on terrorist atrocities and murders and wars, when not a single moment of airtime or inch of newspaper was given over to Eva’s shattering demise. There’s an echo of W.H. Auden’s Funeral Blues here. How can the world possibly still be turning? And Faber finishes Anniversary with an affirmation of love so simple, so honest and quiet and true, that it ripped my heart into little pieces and left it scattered all over the floor:
All I can do, in what remains of my brief time,
is mention, to whoever cares to listen,
that a woman once existed, who was kind
and beautiful and brave, and I will not forget
how the world was altered, beyond recognition
when we met.