Poems at 
the graveside

Clyde Sanger and his family visited his wife Penny Sanger’s grave this summer, where they read poems and planted flowers. Photo: C. Sanger

by Clyde Sanger

Editor’s note: Clyde Sanger’s wife Penny Sanger was, among many other things, the first editor of the Glebe Report. He and his family recently visited her grave.

Meryl Streep did it in that nostalgic film, Out of Africa. They made a love story out of Karen von Blixen’s famous book, and the climax comes when the body of her lover, Denis Finch-Hatton, is buried high in the Ngong Hills where his plane crashed, and she walks on further up the hill and turns to read the poem “To an Athlete Dying Young” from Housman’s Shropshire Lad:

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

We were in good company, then, when we carried up the hill past the Wakefield Inn to the MacLaren Cemetery the tombstone for the grave where we buried Penny alongside the forest fence a year ago. It was appropriate, too. For we – Penny and I and our four infant sons – lived for five years beyond Nairobi on the way to the Ngong Hills in the village named after the old Danish woman who had a coffee farm there a century ago. And we often drove through Karen to have picnics in those hills and watch the hyrax scramble among the rocks, the twigas (giraffe) stretch and the Masai herd their cattle in the plain.

And, without really a thought of copying anyone, we also brought poems to read at the graveside. We already had a couplet engraved on the tombstone itself, which reads:

Penny Sanger
(née Ketchum)
18 March 1931–13 July 2017
A joyous mother and a wonderful wife,
A caring campaigner through the cycle of life.

And, at the top, it had a sketch by granddaughter Claire of Log Cabin Island with two Canada geese beating windward. We didn’t follow the lead of Mike Pearson and his son Geoffrey farther up the hill with maple leaf flags engraved above the wording; nor, for that matter, the diversion of Big Dave who sports a cannabis sprig on his stone, close to the former prime minister.

Matthew had found a folder in which his mother had tucked some favourite verse, and he read first, in a quiet voice, a poem by Rupert Brooke called simply “Heaven.” It’s a charming poem, 34 lines long, and he read it so softly that some of Penny’s seven grandchildren may have taken time to realize it is about a fish’s view of the world:

Fish (fly-replete, in depth of June
Dawdling away their wat’ry noon)
Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear,
Each secret fishy hope or fear.
Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond;
But is there anything Beyond?
This life cannot be All, they swear,
For how unpleasant if it were.

Of course, it has its happy ending.The future is not Wholly Dry and the fish can find, in the Eternal Brook,

Unfading moths, immortal flies.
And the worm that never dies.
And in that Heaven of all their wish,
There shall be no more land, say fish.

I had thought of reading Yeats’ well-known poem, which Penny in her Irish moods would quote: “When you are old, and gray and full of sleep, and nodding by the fire, Take down this book”; but I was emboldened by Matt’s performance to read one I wrote about the Georgian Bay almost exactly 20 years ago. Penny loved our log cabin, the canoes and the swimming, and it is called “The Last Swim” but it’s about birds, not fish. It begins:

The crows cackle caustically:
Summer’s almost done.
“Didn’t you feel chilly
This morning when you swam?”
The blue jays join the mockery:
“Time to pack and go!
It’s our bit of territory now –
We’re waiting for the snow.”

Richard, the poet of the family who has just published a new collection called Dark Woods, was asked to read his fine poem “The Last Paddle.”  In the circumstances it might have been a tearjerker and he said, “Everyone’s heard it.” Then, Toby dug in a perennial plant, a Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia Hirta), at the head of the grave.

Finally Daniel, our youngest, sprang a beautiful surprise. “I found this poem by an Andalusian philosopher and poet,” he said, “who died in Jerusalem in 1141.” Let’s hope there’s room on the page, for here it is:

Tis a fearful thing a holy thing
To love what death can touch
to love.

A fearful thing
For your life has lived in me,
To love, to hope, to dream, to be
your laugh once lifted me.
your word was gift to me.

to be.
And oh, to lose.
To remember this brings painful joy.

A thing for fools, this,
‘Tis a human thing, love,
And a holy thing
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.

All that we missed was Emma to sing the “Penelope Song” and someone to read “Las Cancionas del Perro Antiqua” about the Old Dog who wanted to fly strapped on the back of a butterfly, but knew “There are no smells up here.” Penny loved them both. They can perhaps wait until next year.

Clyde Sanger, journalist, author and poet, is a long-time Glebe resident and Glebe Report contributor who now lives in Old Ottawa South.

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