Carrying the Elephant (poems)
‘Dear Joe, your wild noisy huge brother/is dead. I couldn’t do what my parents did/bring two boys, four years apart, through the maze.’
Michael Rosen’s autobiographical collection of prose-poems, Carrying the Elephant, describes the poet’s whole life but focuses sharply around the sudden death of his son Eddie at eighteen from meningitis. The collection arguably hinges on a moment that seems like a catastrophic failure of empathy- the neighbour who awkwardly stands next to Rosen and says ‘Rather you than me,’ before trying to turn the conversation to the football on Saturday.
It’s a privilege to read something so full of painful honesty, something that reads like an opening up of space in which to explore unwieldy, elephant-sized emotions, even if it isn’t always a smooth or easy read. As Rosen writes in one of the poems following Eddie‘s death, ‘Thank you for your card. I don’t know how to answer your question ‘What can I say?’ as I don’t know what to say either.’
Carrying the Elephant explores the limits of empathy- Rosen addresses the nameless mourners, ‘It’s nice of you to say you’ll always remember him. You won’t.‘ However, the book is never in any doubt about the need for compassion and kindness, no matter how long people stay with you; in a later, more measured poem it becomes clear that overall what matters to the poet is having been ‘on the road,’ with someone and sharing their journey for a while, and that this is more important than having them stay with you forever.