Michel Faber is the award-winning author of several novels and collections of short stories, among them The Crimson Petal and the White, Under the Skin and The Book of Strange New Things. Born in 1960 in the Netherlands, Faber’s family migrated to Australia in 1967 where he was educated and for many years worked as a nurse. Faber now lives and writes in the Scottish Highlands.
In 2014 his wife, Eva Youren, died from multiple myeloma. Undying: A Love Story is a collection of poems that chronicles Faber’s grief. He wrote two of the poems while Eva was very ill, and most of the rest on the other side of her death, in the strange new world of bereavement – “a world”, he writes, “that did not have my dearest friend in it”.
I hadn’t known such need for poetry before. I wish I’d lived into my nineties, with Eva at my side, and never written these things.”
If you are one of those who like your poetry sweet, soft and sentimental, these poems are not for you. Personally, I love this book. The poems are direct, clear-eyed and uncompromising. They confront the physical ravages of the disease (‘You’re ugly, at the end. / You knew it and I knew it’). They rail at the unfairness of cancer, and take the reader roller-coasting through the hopes and horrors of high-tech medicine:
You have achieved zero.
Which is to say, the cancer in your marrow
is now so shrunken and discreet
that numbers cannot quantify it.
… that momentous zero,
that conditional nothing,
which, after months of eating poison,
you have achieved.
Yet, where the poems speak of horror they simultaneously reveal grace; where vulnerability, strength; where fear, courage; where helplessness, devoted care and an ever-growing “utter loyalty”. These are poems that have been forged in a terrible fire, that’s true, but what gives the blast furnace its scorching and magnificent energy isn’t cancer: it’s love.
In an interview, Faber acknowledges that Undying won’t be everyone’s idea of how poetry ought to deal with grief. But, he says,
for those people who are perhaps frustrated by some of the evasiveness and sentimentalism of the way our culture handles illness and death and grief, maybe these poems will give them a vicarious voice.”
Undying: A Love Story is a work of uncommon generosity. Many people will welcome its honesty and draw solace and strength from its companionship in hard times. Perhaps the final lines from the final poem, “Lucenies (2)”, although addressed to Eva, also best describe the book’s gift to the reader:
But you left lucencies of grace
secreted in the world,
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.