Synopsis: to make sure we never get too close, the primary narrative is presented as a play-within-a-play. Soviet peasants in dispute over land abandoned by retreating Nazi forces tell the story of young servant woman Grusha Vashnadze and how she saves the life of child prince Michael in a time of civil war. Abandoned by his well-bred parents, Grusha crosses mountains in her attempt to save him from his pursuers, adopting him as her own son and sacrificing any thought of her personal happiness. Ultimately rewarded for this sacrifice, she is the Everywoman whose courage and selflessness in the tumult of war is only matched by her innocence of its cause.
What moved me: the simple, painful lyricism of Brecht’s poetry. The exchange between Grusha and Simon (Grusha’s fiancee) when he has returned to find her married is excruciating. They cannot tell each other what they have been through and so it is left to The Singer to tell us what we already know.
SIMON: Is the young lady saying that someone has come too late?
Grusha looks up at him in despair, her face streaming with tears. Simon stares before him. He picks up a piece of wood and starts cutting it.
So many words are said, so many words are left unsaid.
The soldier has come. Whence he comes he doesn’t say.
Hear what he thought but didn’t say:
The battle began at dawn, grew bloody at noon.
The first fell before me, the second behind me, the captain sabred the third.
My one brother died by steel, my other brother died by smoke.
My neck was burnt by fire, my hands froze in my gloves, my toes in my socks.
For food I had aspen buds, for drink I made maple brew, for bed I had stones in water.
SIMON: I see a cap in the grass. Is there a little one already?
GRUSHA: There is, Simon. How could I hide it? But please don’t let it worry you. It’s not mine.
SIMON: They say: Once the wind begins to blow, it blows through every crack. The woman need say no more.
Grusha lowers her head and says no more.
There was great yearning but there was no waiting.
The oath is broken. Why was not disclosed.
Hear what she thought, but didn’t say:
While you fought in the battle, soldier
The bloody battle, the bitter battle
I found a child who was helpless
And hadn’t the heart to do away with it.
I had to care for what otherwise would have come to harm
I had to bend down on the floor for breadcrumbs
I had to tear myself to pieces for what was not mine
Someone must be the helper.
Because the little tree needs its water
The little lamb loses its way when the herdsmen is asleep
He was in a car accident and his chest collapsed. For reasons still unknown, they could not operate as his blood would not clot and he was dead within 24 hours.
All I could feel was a sense of total absence.
The man that I had only really started getting to know halfway through last year no longer existed.
He was a real outback kind of guy.
Hard in a no-bullshit, rock-climber, mine-manager kind of way.
He’d been bitten by snakes so many times he was immune to anti-venom.
He was a diehard Collingwood fan.
He didn’t eat vegetables.
He was a serious smoker.
He was a gentle giant who in his retirement lived on Mount Tambourine with his partner, my aunty.
He worked on their massive back yard, building a rock-climbing wall in his shed, a big birdcage for their zebra finches, and a pen for their chooks.
He drove my sister and I the hour-and-a-half trip to the Gold Coast airport after our stay with them.
He called my aunty ‘Poss’.
When I heard that he’d died all I could think about was my aunty. He was her everything. They’d never had kids and had lived all over Australia, following John’s mining placements. And he was gone. A whole had been ripped into halves.
I only have a shadowy understanding of grief. My grandfather, my idol, died in 2006, and I still think about him everyday. But it was with John that I began to sense the shock of sudden death, of having your ribcage yanked out and being told that it no longer belongs to you.
The thing that I am ashamed of and which fills me with wonder is how quickly the world reasserts itself. The shock knocks out your focus, holding you in the merciless grip of remembered images, remembered words. But almost instantly your focus starts to shift back: objects refill with colour and weight, something makes you laugh, you have a conversation with someone who doesn’t know what’s happened and who you decide shouldn’t be dragged down with the details.
I’ve realised that language has not been designed to cope with death. The sheer nature of it is a ‘filling-up’; you fill up space with words, often to avoid the yawning, threatening, exhilirating emptiness of silence.
Is this why we flounder with the bereaved? What language could approximate their loss, could capture the absence of their other half?
Perhaps this is where our bodies really do come into their own. Language fails in the face of death. But you still want, desperately, to help the one left behind, to help them start stitching up the one half left. And so you hold them. A hand on the shoulder, back, knee. A hug. An encouraging, useless smile. Open arms.
What else can you do?
Funnily enough, I think one man has managed to capture grief with words, which my aunty put on the funeral service sheet:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.