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Featured Poem: Fear by Vittoria Aganoor Pompili

Written by Sinead Nunes, 3rd February 2020

This week's Featured Poem is Fear by Vittoria Aganoor Pompili, chosen by The Reader's Learning and Quality Coordinator, Lisa Spurgin.

 

What immediately strikes me about this poem is the opening line. There’s something admirably casual about it; I say that because I couldn’t ever imagine myself standing firm in the face of death, not being afraid and wanting to fight against it but instead saying “okay, you win”. I think it would take a lot of inner strength to react in that way. Perhaps it’s something that comes with age, or in a certain situation? Even though death is an inevitability its unknown quantity makes it a very scary thing both to comprehend and to deal with – now I’m also thinking not only in terms of the person facing it, but also those who are affected by it too: family, friends, loved ones. Is it often the case that death is a more fearful thing for those who are left behind?

I’m interested by this idea of ‘the sacred truth’. What does that mean? Would one person’s sacred truth be different to another’s? I would be inclined to think, yes, but perhaps there are certain truths that are universal?

The notion of being let off ‘on the other side’ is also bringing up lots of thoughts and questions. Is it perhaps talking about an afterlife, or some other existence? It’s hard to imagine, and even more so to think of a ‘dirty trick’ being played. ‘Burning tears’ seems bad, in some sense, but also testament to how deeply the departed is missed, maybe?. ‘Vain zeal’ definitely strikes me as negative, as though the mourning is more of a display of sentimentality rather than anything meaningful.

Lots of puzzling to be done in the middle, but I feel like I’m on safer ground with the ending, and this is perhaps what the root of the fear that is being considered is:

‘I fear – no sooner in the earth
of the burying ground – to change

into a dear shadow, prized object of love’

It seems common that when someone dies there is an outpouring of love, fond memories, good stories and sentiments, and that sometimes there is an authenticity about this that doesn’t necessarily not exist when the same person is alive, but is perhaps not charged with the same meaning and intensity. We don’t tell someone how much they mean to us and how their presence in our lives makes us feel when they are around us because we might feel embarrassed, or that it’s already known. The ‘hungry heart asked always in vain’ here makes me sad, and makes me think that we should take the opportunity to share our feelings, compliments and kind words more often to those close to us – also to those who are perhaps more like acquaintances – as what may be considered something that could be saved for another time may be something far more crucial to those on the receiving end.

Not an easy poem, by any means, with two difficult and even uncomfortable concepts in fear and death, but one well worth digging down into.

Fear

All right, I’ll die, my spirit is strong.
But, to confess the sacred truth,
there’s something that I fear: I fear that death, too,
letting me off on the other side,

wants to play me a dirty trick:
burning tears fall over
my icy corpse, and someone
covers the bier with flowers

through vain zeal, and in loving crowd
friends are drawn behind my coffin.
I fear – no sooner in the earth
of the burying ground – to change

into a dear shadow, prized object of love,
and on my stone will pour fully
what alive my hungry heart asked
always in vain.

Vittoria Aganoor Pompili
(translated from Italian by Brenda Webster)

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