poet's sanctum Poetry Friday

Poetry Friday: Bereavement Leave by Joel M. Toledo

Today’s Poetry Friday is a tad dark – yet as all things go, inevitable. I thought that it would be a perfect poem to match some of the photos I took while I was in New Orleans when I did a cemetery tour with good friends. Heidi Mordhorst from My Juicy Little Universe is hosting this week’s Poetry Friday – head on over there to check out lighter-aired posts. 🙂

Cemetery Tour in New Orleans

We are in Voodoo land, after all, might as well visit the graveyards. It was not as sobering an experience as I expected – it was pretty light. Here are some of the photos I took:

Well-tended grave – with fresh flowers on a Halloween-themed vase.

In contrast to this one, peeling paint, quite dark.

Known as apartment-types. Also quite run-down.

Very gothic-inspired.

Brief Cemetery Tour in Singapore

Several days back, we had the lovely privilege of hosting one of our premiere Filipina singer-songwriter, Madam Cynthia Alexander. She was intrigued with the variety of cemeteries we have here in Singapore – she saw most of them as we were on our way to Bollywood Veggies, a lovely restaurant (very organic-based) in the Western part of Singapore. Here are some of the photos I have taken from that very brief sojourn with the dead. These ones are kind of creepy and sad, truth be told.

Christian Cemetery Path

We walked through a graveyard of babies – most of them died at birth. Truly very sad.

This one freaked out my daughter primarily because it’s broken. It is indeed a tad scary.

This one even has the child’s playthings. Heartbreaking.

I also find that these are things we should purge ourselves of. The fear, the mangled demons within, and the scars that are still healing. This is a fitting post to let go of all these energies that should be thrown to the universe – which is grand enough to hold and safeguard all things beautiful and sordid.

Before I share Joel M. Toledo’s poem this Friday, allow me to share the lyrics from Cynthia Alexander’s song “Emptyhanded.” Trust me when I say that it is the perfect song for this theme. Here are the lyrics to her song – which are poetry in and of itself.

Emptyhanded

Why, Why do you worry?
We are not born nor do we die,
What is happening, happens for the best.
What will happen, happens for the best.

We have come emptyhanded,
We will go emptyhanded.

What have you lost that you are weeping?
What youfound that you have lost?
What have you built that has been broken?
You have not anything…

What you have, you got from here
what was given you, was given here
what you took, you took from here
what you gave, you gave unto here

We have come emptyhanded
We will go emptyhanded,
Emptyhanded.

Why, why toil for sorrow?
And what have we to fear?
What is happening, happens for the best.
What will happen, happens for the best.

We have come emptyhanded,
We will go emptyhanded.

What you have, you got from here
What was given you, was given here
What you took, you took from here
what you gave, you gave unto here.

We have come emptyhanded
We will go emptyhanded
We have come emptyhanded
We will go emptyhanded

And so I share now Professor Joel M. Toledo’s poem:

Bereavement Leave by Joel M. Toledo

Pass out the biscuits.
Pass around an exhausted hand.
Match the grip of strangers, firm in their insistence
on lapsed kinship. I pass by the old
mirror and do not find grief. Maybe
because that can wait. No, not that—
because no one stares at mirrors hoping
for the sudden sorrows. Even actors
cannot do that, I think. One instead
finds it in the faces of a new cousin,
aging relatives helping out in the kitchen,
neighbors whose name you will never
recall when this leave’s over. Death
has a funny way of extending the family.
Or delaying the absence. Looking now
at my mother, the curl of her lips
tracing a smile beneath the glass,
I realize the world can wait. She holds
her peace well, and nine days after
it’s still not the time to speak, but for
simply passing the time, passing by
the mirror again and again, holding back
the necessary arrangements. Because
now a newfound uncle, the one with
a booming laugh and the thickest
barrio accent, is asking for coffee.

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Singapore. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she serves as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads or meeting up with her book club friends, she is smashing that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life.

19 comments on “Poetry Friday: Bereavement Leave by Joel M. Toledo

  1. Lovely post. I loved seeing both of the cemeteries.

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  2. The lyrics are very wise and I enjoyed Toledo’s poem very much also. I haven’t suffered much bereavement in my life, but I find myself preparing, these days, for loss. If that’s possible.

    Thanks for stopping by mjlu today, Myra!

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  3. The words caught the event in my memories so very well. When happening, one seems to take solace in others, even if it’s just bringing them coffee. I liked your photos and the journey through. I have taken students to a nearby cemetery to write, a fascinating exercise for them, to imagine the lives of the stories they find on the stones. Thanks.

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    • Hi Linda, thanks for visiting. I imagine that it’s a powerful powerful exercise for the students – being face to face with what others deem to be taboo. I’d love to read their stories one day. 🙂

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  4. I really enjoyed this. I guess I’m morbid but I actually like cemeteries, and I also like to see how different cultures/people deal with death. I love this poem, and it carries that sense of grief-yet-closeness that comes to a family when someone dies. Thanks!

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    • Hello! Thanks for dropping by. It’s my pleasure to feature these photos. Walking through the New Orleans cemeteries isn’t as creepy as walking through the Singapore ones, for some reason. 🙂 I suppose the images convey that as well.

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  5. Thank you, Myra, for this thoughtful post.

    Yes, a visit to a cemetery can be a little sad and dark but it is a useful reminder of an undeniable part of life. The singer Cynthia Alexander has it right: “We have come emptyhanded, we will go emptyhanded.”

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  6. I love the juxtaposition of the photographs, the song and the poem – the underlying themes are all so beautifully connected and enriched by such different mediums. Thank you for sharing this experience.

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  7. Really lovely poem, song and photos, Myra. Thanks for taking us on this journey. into cemeteries we may never see and inward to the place called Grief which is all to near. This line speaks to me – “no one stares at mirrors hoping for the sudden sorrows.”

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  8. Pingback: Highlights of November and Carnival of Children’s Literature |

  9. Oh, those baby toys tug at my heart. I agree with the others — photos, song and poem all complement one another and your reflections. Thank you for such a thoughtful post.

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  10. How interesting to come to this post from “Reluctance” by Robert Frost at The Write Sisters! I love when the poems of Poetry Friday “talk” to each other!!

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