by Alice Quinn
My friend Stephen Kramer – who loved poetry and birds, people and life so much – died last Friday, August 8th, after a four-and-a-half year battle with Multiple Myeloma. Steve had been a hugely respected lawyer for the City of New York but retired after his diagnosis in January 2010 at the age of 62.
Recently, he’d been writing a column for The Myeloma Beacon, a blog and online forum for the Myeloma community. I recommend these essays for their gallantry and their portrait of life lived simultaneously on the edge and to the brim.
Steve and I corresponded about poems, and two in particular called out to me in the last days when I was in touch with his family, who also surrounded him with song. The first is Emily Dickinson’s poem #1747 (of 1789), one of hundreds she sent to her sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson.
That Love is all there is
Is all we know of Love,
It is enough, the freight should be
Proportioned to the groove.
The second is Walt Whitman’s “When lilac’s last in the dooryard bloom’d.” Whitman served as a nurse during the Civil War, and watching the young die was a continual torment to him. He begins with an announcement of the mourning he has performed and ever shall for a man he proclaims later in the poem to be “the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands.” The poem invokes the figure of a hermit thrush, caroling to the bard, “Loud, human song, with voice of utterest woe/…. And he sang the carol of death, and a verse for him I love.”
From “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d” by Walt Whitman (1819-1892):
Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side
And the thought of death close-walking the other side
And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding
the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp
in the dimness,
To the solemn shadowy cedars and ghostly pines so still.
And the singer so shy to the rest receiv’d me,
The gray-brown bird I know receiv’d us comrades three,
And he sang the carol of death, and a verse for him I
Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.
(Photo by Justin Young)