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Daughters, hear the music

by Erin Gong

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God. 
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; 
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reek his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs-
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerald Manley Hopkins

Some mothers sing lullabies to their children at bedtime. Some read stories
about puppies and bunnies and sunshine. My two girls were raised on
Hopkins. Every night I pulled out the hardback anthology that my
husband, Greg, gave me on our one-year anniversary and read a poem or two
aloud to them.

"You're a flower child, Jean," he said when he gave it to me. "I'll never
understand your thing for poetry."

Neither did I. One of my boyfriends in college read a poem by Hopkins
to me when he was drunk and stoned. It was the sixties then and people were full of 
themselves trying to break down the system, the world. I laughed at
Hopkins's words about God and faith because they were honest. And then I
cried at Hopkins's rhythm and sounds because they were real. Coming
through Bruce's drawling, slurred speech, the poetry brought me to a place
with the believers. I broke up with Bruce, but I kept reading-Hopkins, Yeats,
Tennyson-voices that created something solid. Eating poetry kept me alive.

"I wrote an essay about it once," I told Greg.

"About poetry? I thought you were in biology."

"About Hopkins's poetry," I explained. "It was for ... fun."

It wasn't for fun. I wrote it because I finally realized that I needed to
understand how his poetry could be my life-line. I was scared to write it
because I had never done anything like that before; I was even more scared to
finish it because that meant I would understand what Hopkins understood.
And if I didn't understand or if I didn't like it . .. then what would keep me
alive? All of this I could have explained to Greg, but he had already turned on
the TV, remote in one hand, beer in the other.

When I read to my two girls, Clara was the one who listened. And so I wasn't surprised 
when she decided to study literature in college. She understood the power of language 
in a way that I knew Mattie, her sister, would never care to learn. Clara always had some 
paper she wanted me to look over and give her feedback on. Not that I helped much. But 
I loved it; she wrote in a way that I never dared, and so I lived through her writing.

One weekend early in November, Clara made another one of her surprise
visits home. I never told her how much those visits meant to me. The house
was quiet with only Mattie left. And even then it seemed like Mattie had
already moved out, too-at school until seven every night, shutting herself in
her bedroom with dinner and a stack of homework, and spending the whole
weekend with friends.

One day I realized that almost a whole week passed by and I hadn't seen
anything except the back of her head disappearing out the door. I approached
her late one night in the kitchen. When I came in, she was drinking a glass of
milk. Her hair was done up with a ribbon, her sports bag still hanging across
her shoulder.

"Mattie-" I began.

The tone of my voice gave my annoyance away. Mattie put her glass
down and swept a stray piece of hair out of her face. "What?"

"I just . . . " my voice faded too quickly.

"You just want to make sure I'm okay." She paused. "And I am."

"I know . .. "

'I'm even well nourished. Calcium, right?" She held up the glass of milk.

I didn't push it. "Well, just don't stay up too late." I regretted the words
as they came from my mouth. One more criticism. One more piece of advice.
One step further from her.

Anyway, when Clara came home that weekend I remember her talking about school, 
as usual. I was standing in the kitchen cooking chicken for dinner, and Clara was 
sitting at the counter doodling on napkins. "It's not that I don't like the classes . . . 
I just wonder if there's any real worth to pouring over words and words and more words," 
she was saying.

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know. Words have built this whole structure for us to try to talk about what we 
can't always have with us. They don't have any real meaning-they just stand in for what isn't there."

She grabbed a fresh napkin and started drawing the frame of a house. I
was stirring chicken pieces on the frying pan to keep them from scorching.

"So do you want to do something else?" I asked.


"You could follow your mom's path and do biology ... "

She was scrawling arrows around the house pointing to different areas of
the framework. Laughing a little at my comment, she made the arrows move
away from the house in all different directions. "Yeah right, Mom. I could
never handle that."

Follow your instincts, do what you want.

No, I can't tell her what to do.

I turned back to the stove and Clara continued, "I feel like there's some-
thing else though that I could be doing. The words just don't mean anything anymore."

She didn't say anything for a while. When I turned back to the counter she
had left the room. I looked down at the napkin; the arrows had turned to lazy
lines spiraling loosely across the napkin. I knew she'd stick to English. She was
just like me-hard-working and idealistic, but too hesitant, waiting until time
is gone. And what did she mean, the words don't mean anything? Words are
words ... sometimes they mean everything. I smelled something burning
and I turn back to the stove just in time to save the blackened chicken.

"Dinner's ready," I called.

She died the next weekend.

The rain was furiously beating on the windowpane when the phone
rang. "Your daughter Clara has been in a car accident."

My heartbeat echoed in my head, thumping in time with the rain. "Is she
okay?" The quiver in my voice made my eyes swell with tears. She's okay,
she's okay. I waited and the room darkened around me. ''I'm sorry," the voice
said. Or maybe just "No." I don't remember the words. I remember that it
was calm and that bothered me. How could the voice that told me my
daughter was dead be calm? It should have trembled with me, it should
have been broken by tears, it should have been hollow with grief. But
instead it was infuriatingly calm.

The voice gave me more information about when and where the accident
occurred. It told me what my husband and I were supposed to do now. I
wrote it all down, but I don't know how because the pulsing of the blood in
my head drowned out the words. It drowned my vision too, so that the
paper and pencil in front of me were both bright white and the rest of
the room was dark stars fading in and out.

When I hung up the phone, I sat down and let the rain breathe for me
because my lungs could only get quick gasps of air between long pauses. No
tears came either: the rain was enough.

The next few weeks-months ... it was always the same. One day I'd
wake up and know that wherever she was Clara was happy and that life
would be all right without her. That'd keep me going as I showered and
dressed and watched the morning news. Then when the house was quiet and
I was sorting through the papers on the kitchen counter I would think of
Clara again, think that it'd only been three miserable weeks without her. And
I would cry because three weeks is a long time, and even longer when I know
that three weeks will never end, but turn into four then five then six weeks
and on and on until finally I died and then maybe that'd be the end, but
who's to say.

An hour later I would be okay again.

At least once a day I met somebody who knew about the accident. It was
at the grocery store or the bank or the gym; it didn't matter. They would walk
over to me, gently take my arm, and looking up into my eyes say with the
greatest concern, "How are you doing today, Jean?"

"Oh, you know . . . I'm hanging in there."

After the seventeenth time I had mastered the reply. With sympathetic
smiles they said, "If you need anything, don't hesitate to call, okay?"

"Thank you . Yes, I'll remember that."

It's what they wanted to hear, I think. It made them feel good; it made
them feel Christian. I couldn't get too mad at them: they didn't know how
ludicrous that first question was. How are you feeling today? Today? Well, this
morning I felt awful and now things are looking better, but by tonight I'll
probably feel like killing myself again. That's how I feel today. How about
yesterday? Oh, yesterday all day was good. Of course, I spent it in front of the
TV watching anything on daytime television that would keep my mind off of
the fact that there are real problems in the world and that I have to deal with
one of them but I can't seem to do it and that scares me half to death.

Oh, you know . . . I'm hanging in there.

Mattie had a hard time, too. Her routine didn't change much, and so I
didn't see her often. But sometimes behind that closed bedroom door, I could
hear her sobbing.

I almost knocked once. But instead of coming down on the door with a
distinct tap, my hand opened up and ran noiseless across the soft white finish.
When my hand grasped the corner of the door frame, I buried my head in it,
putting all my weight into that corner and thinking, Open the door, Jean, open
it. Ten minutes must have passed before I moved again. But I didn't try to
knock; I backed away into my own bedroom and closed the door behind
me. It didn't bother me that Mattie always shut herself up that way. What
bothered me was that somewhere in her seventeen years I had lost the ability
to open the door.

I told my husband that I wanted to go to church. Want was probably the
wrong word-I should have said need. Either way, we went to church and sat
in uncomfortable and unfamiliar pews. I tried to listen to the minister's sermon,
but I had a hard time concentrating on the speech about heaven and hell.
Instead I looked at how the light coming through the window made the
stained-glass Jesus look as if he were scowling at the little baby in front of us.
And the red from his crowned head danced across the buttons on the baby's
furry jacket. I tried to find some symbolic meaning from this, but then the
choir began to sing.

Glory to the Lord. Hosanna to His name.

Or something like that. I was listening, but it was hard to understand the
words. There was energy, though, and I liked that. After the choir, the minister
got up again. I turned back to Jesus and the baby, but a cloud had covered the
sun, and so Jesus looked sacredly solemn and the baby was only a baby.

I didn't go to church the next week, or any time after that. The choir was
good, but it wasn't worth all that preaching to get to. I used Hopkins as my
Bible instead. As I studied the Good Book, I laughed at the irony because all
I read were the Terrible Sonnets. Hopkins wrote those at the end of his life,
when he had apparently lost his hope in God. I read "No Worst, There is
None," and I understood.

Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing.

The funny thing was, whenever I opened the book, I always opened first
to "The Grandeur of God." I refused to read it, but I needed to make sure it
was still there. I couldn't believe that the same man who wrote of such hope
and praise really turned so far from it in the end. I saw the title but wouldn't
read it, because now that I had turned away with Hopkins, I didn't want to
go back either. It wasn't that I didn't believe in God anymore. I did believe. I
had to believe. That's where Clara was, and if I stopped believing in God,
then Clara would really be gone forever.

I believed.

It scared me, though, to look at those words on the page about God's
grandeur. I did it once, right after Clara's accident.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed ... like the car, crushed. Oozing oil and blood . . .


God is the center of everything in the poem. Flame exists because of
Christ's light, and crushed oil is an image of atonement. It's beautiful.

But what did Clara say about words? Merely words on the page that had
no meaning. Hopkins couldn't hold God in his hands or paste Him onto the
page, so he found a word to stand in for Him ... G-0-D, God. It doesn't have
any real meaning, it's never had real meaning-it's a reminder of what is
absent. You can't hold God in your hands. I used to hold Clara in my hands.
Clara-it's just a word now, isn't it? Every time I say her name it's just a word
standing in for what can no longer be present. Clara! God! Where are they?

The center, God. He is Light, shook foil, crushed oil .. . but these are
more words, more absences. And what if it isn't even God at all-what if it's
death, grief, everything in our dreams that leaves us in a cold, wild sweat that
we can never forget but can never disclose either.

"The center cannot hold," Yeats said. The center ... God ... cannot hold .

I cannot hold my Clara.

I didn't like to read "God's Grandeur" after that. Maybe Hopkins didn't
like to read them either. Maybe that's why he started writing the "Terrible

Sometime after Christmas had passed, Mattie surprised me by coming
home from school early one afternoon. I caught her in the hallway as she
headed towards her room. When she saw me she ducked her head down and
tried to shift between me and her door. "What are you doing home so early?"
I asked.

"No reason . .. just felt like it, I guess."

"Is something wrong?" I cocked my head to see her face . "You look pale."

"Nothing's wrong, Mom." The silence hung between us and it created
more empty space than the hallway allowed. "Can I get by you?"

"Mattie, I feel like we haven't talked for such a long time," I started, not
knowing what to say, but hoping to keep her just a moment more.

My words brought her head up to look into my eyes, "Oh, so you
noticed? It's been longer than a few months, Mom." She didn't wait for my
reply. She brushed around me, the door closed, I was alone.

That evening I crawled up into the attic to rifle through my box of old
college work. The musty air reminded me somewhat of the biology labs ...
although I'm not sure why. I pulled out the mortar board and graduation cords
from the top of the box and began to look through the stack of brittle yellow
papers. Most of them had a dark red A or B+ scrawled across the top.
Towards the bottom of the stack, I found one paper without a grade or
markings on it.

I was filled with unexpected emotion as I pulled it out. Seven clean hand-
written pages, carefully stapled at the top. I turned through them one by one and 
the grease from my fingers left a slight smudge on each thin page. My
essay on Hopkins-the last page, of course, stopped in the middle of a
paragraph. I saw the incomplete thoughts from my twenty-some-year-old self
suspended, never changing, but ever-waiting to be resolved.

I thought I should finish it. But finishing the paper meant looking one
more time at that poem, one more time facing the nothingness of the words,
the revulsion of the words. But it had been waiting so long for me to come
back. Except for the paper, I put everything back into the box and closed it
up. At least this was something that I could reason out, that I could control,
that I could wrap up, right? And today had been okay, so far.

Sitting in the office, I finished reading the last line of the paper.
"The true grandeur of Hopkins's poem comes when we look past the actual
words that he uses and listen to the sonorous symphony they create; his
message moves beyond the images and beyond the metaphors into the
rhythms of life."

Did he know that? I wondered to myself. Do I know that?

I folded the other six pages on top of the last and then I read the paper
again. Reading and rereading, thinking and rethinking, I tried to understand.
Then I picked up the blue hardback anthology that Greg had given me. With
the book in hand, I opened to page twelve.

"The world is charged with the grandeur of God," I read.

I remember stopping at the last four lines and saying them again, slowly
and out loud. 

And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs-
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

And then I felt it. God-He was in the poem. He was in the rhythm, in the
music. The syllables rolled around in my mouth and then escaped into the air.
And for that split second between the beginning and end of sound, there was a
presence. It pulsed quickly through the room with revitalizing fervor. The energy
in the room grabbed me. It wasn't words, it was rhythm and music.

I returned to the last page of the paper. The ink from my pen tapered off
slightly as I signed my name at the bottom of the page. Now I wanted to put the
paper away somewhere. It was done, and I didn't need to look at it anymore. I felt
alive-I had never felt so alive. Even so, as I stuffed the paper in the filing cabinet,
I found myself mumbling, "She's not coming back." Funny, how at the same
moment of new life, I felt aware-more than ever, of Clara's death. I repeated the
words, "She's not coming back."

But it wasn't about death; it was about movement and rhythm.

I went out into the kitchen a few minutes later. Mattie was reheating her
dinner to take to her room. The microwave hummed and Mattie clinked the
silverware on the counter while she waited. She looked up for a second but didn't
say anything.

I smiled from the doorway, "Hey Mattie."

Something in my voice cued her to look at me again. "Hey."

I didn't say anything more. I was listening to the room. The clock ticked
steadily, Mattie shuffled her feet on the tile floor, and the houseplant danced in the
moonlight. Rhythm and music, I thought to myself. I walked up to Mattie and
squeezed her from behind. She turned her head and began to let go but I kept
holding on to her. I was afraid she would pull away, but then her body turned
toward me. She held me tightly. With my head buried in her hair, I mumbled,
"How are you, Mattie?"

'I'm okay, Mom."

We pulled out of the embrace and held each other at arm's length.
Mattie's eyes were glistening as she blinked rapidly. She hugged me tight
again. "I miss Clara."

"Me too."

"I keep expecting her to walk through the door, smiling and happy. But she's
not going to, Mom. She's not."

I was crying now, too. "You're right, Mattie."

"I don't understand."

"Neither do I."

"What am I supposed to do?"

For a few moments, time seemed to move slower. Everything was okay
and everything wasn't okay. But no matter how slow it went, time still
passed. The microwave beeped and the clock kept ticking. "There's nothing
we're supposed to do, Mattie."

Her head was resting on my shoulder and I felt her nod up and down.
"But it's so hard. Every day, every hour, I'm either hurting or happy. And I
don't even know why."

"But you keep on living, Mattie. You do what you know how to do and
figure that eventually you'll catch up with the world."

The microwave started to beep again and Mattie escaped to get her food.
Her eyes were moist as she gathered the plate, cup and silverware. Out of
habit, she turned to leave the kitchen, but paused at the counter. She placed
the food in front of her and sat down on a stool. Looking up at me she said,
"Mom, will you stay with me while I eat?"

Her eyes met mine and I felt the room come to life with her words.
Somewhere, I thought, Clara is scribbling arrows and spirals on a napkin.
And right now, I am standing with Mattie as she eats dinner in the kitchen.

I sat down next to her and we began to talk.

Loaded with wisdom but lacking in audience, Erin Gong is pleased to finally have her first official 
publication in lnscape. If you asked her what her greatest inspiration has been, she would undoubtedly 
say Ultimate Frisbee and ice cream. The short story found here is dedicated to her best friend Cherise, 
who helped Erin understand what it means to love, to grieve, and to live again.