Green Burial by Martin Hayden. Published by The Garlic Press. Price £10.
Many years ago I spoke to a veteran activist in the peace movement. When I asked him why he did what he did, he said, “It’s my love song to the world.” This book feels very much like a love song – to the world, to creation, to a family, and to a precious lost son.
I have rarely been so moved by anything I have read. Out of the unimaginable pain of losing a son to suicide, Martin Hayden has created something of beauty, and a life-filled, love-filled memorial to Ben. When I had finished reading it, the title of the book, Green Burial, took on layers of meaning, because although this is a book which has pain and loss at its heart, it is not bleak, or despairing, or platitudinous, but fresh and full of life. It faces loss honestly, head on – indeed so honestly that at times one almost gasps, but it is a loss which is located in a deep, intense appreciation of life, in all its manifestations.
This location of death in life is reflected in the book’s structure, which has five sections. The middle one consists of a single poem called Candle, followed by Thirty-three Short Poems for Ben. The first of these short poems stopped me in my tracks. The glimpse into tragedy was so stark and so powerful, it took time to process, and I doubt I’ll ever forget it.
These 33 poems contain memories of Ben, intimate little details of everyday life – Ben tucking in the label on his Dad’s tracksuit collar, the two of them watching television together – but then come the hints at a troubled soul, a young life gradually unravelling.
Almost everyone liked you.
Even Angela from Recruitment,
Who knew you only as a voice,
rang me, anxious about behaviour
‘out of character’,
wanting to be kept informed.
Some of these thirty three poems are as short as two lines – plain, spare, unembroidered. Out of grief these poems emerge, simultaneously raw but distilled, often stark in their simplicity and unflinching truth. Each poem seems to represent another facet of the deep love that is the source of such deep grief.
This section is the middle and the heart of the book, the axis around which everything else revolves, charting a course from joyful boy to charming young man, then the heartache and the devastating end, as the father stands beside his son’s grave and reads, ‘Benjamin Oliver Hayden, 17.05.1985 – 21.02.2018.’ This is the core of the book, as it must surely be at the core of the author.
It is in the other, surrounding sections of the book that the fullness of the poet’s own life, and the versatility of his writing is revealed. The early poems are a lyrical celebration of the natural world in all its profusion, its music and its richness, observed when stepping out into the landscape, or when sitting still on a patio, watching and listening.
The poem Aubade shows the range and completeness of Hayden’s appreciation of the natural world, going from the joy he takes his garden on a May morning:
First glimmer of wakefulness,
Heart and lungs stilled with excitement,
I have the lawn
Pointed with multiple lights in the sun,
The mathematical trim
Tousled all over with a favourite flower,
The days eye, the white-and-red:
Where I seek to be at the very moment
When the flushed white petals unclench
(I saw one flower, glued with the dew to a blade,
Nod in thanks to the sun that freed it).
To the remote location of the final stanza,
A shelterless island, an Arctic wind,
Rocky ground in a south-facing nook,
The warmth of the right word inside me,
I sit in the sun, watch the meadow-pipit,
Its stone-drop display flight into the heather,
Around me violets, celandine, primrose, daisy.
Hayden clearly has an extensive knowledge of trees, plants, birds, insects, astronomy even, but it is worn lightly, with the names of everything he sees forming a sort of celebratory litany.
The locations for some of these poems are Lindisfarne and Iona, often referred to as ‘thin places’, because in those places the veil between this world and the eternal world is felt to be thin. The author captures this spirit in the most lyrical but unassuming and unpretentious way, indeed the whole book is permeated by a very light, sensitive spirituality. It is a spirituality as essence of life, not something learned, contrived, or codified, but instinctive and natural.
The two last sections of the book are quite different from each other. The fourth, coming as it does after the intense middle section, is a change of pace, tone, and style. It focuses on the author’s travels and experiences, and though I could admire the writing I personally found this the least engaging part of the book – but on reflection and in light of what had come before, this was perhaps inevitable and necessary, a breathing space and an opportunity for the reader to disengage and decompress.
In the fifth and final section, we return to more emotional territory, but these poems feel lighter, and the importance of the book’s title again becomes clear. A green burial for Ben involves the choice of a tree, and a poem about the phone call concerning this choice is achingly poignant.
You appear in the doorway, almost urgent,
Saying, ‘Bens’s…’ in a new tone, the old tone,
And I think, ‘Good news!’ before you go on,
‘…tree: oak, sycamore, silver birch, hornbeam?’
Which do we want? I hide the foolishness
Of thinking there can be good news about Ben
behind a business-like ‘No’,
not the white of silver birch, ‘hornbeam’
both of us too eagerly agreeing.
But it also feels as if the immense weight of grief is lifting slightly. Green Burial Site, on a visit to Ben’s grave in summer, is a wonderfully lyrical and vivid description of a small patch of earth which is actually teeming with life and beauty.
‘The neat wooden board with name and dates
looks dusty, cobwebbed even, but
a closer look shows two crickets
riding its top, and a grasshopper,
attached downwards like a safety pin.’
The normality of everyday existence also continues, and gradually pulls the family up from the depths. In Capsize an overturned bucket of water in the kitchen prompts a frantic effort to mop up,
‘and laughter, despite it all.’
The final poem of the book, A Journey to Make, Sometime, is about a trip which the poet suggests Ben’s brother David could make, to a place on Iona where as children he and his brother had been happy. A pilgrimage, of sorts. And in a way, this whole book feels like a pilgrimage in words. It’s become something of a cliché to refer to almost any experience as a journey, but this book really does feel like a journey, deep into grief and slowly emerging – still with the intense loss, but also still with the intense appreciation of life, and our place in time and in nature. Although it is a book anchored by grief, it is also full of vivid and invigorating life, crammed full of love and appreciation, and hope.
It seems fitting to end by quoting something from the poet’s extraordinary encounter with an eagle. Of Water and Eagle feels like a challenge to us all to fully appreciate the day and the place we are in.
‘How many days?
You ask but the question has no meaning:
There’s just this one, fresh.’
I would recommend this book to anyone. I was slightly apprehensive about reading it, because of the subject matter, but I am very glad that I did, as it was such a rich and enriching experience.
* Order Green Burial from the publisher here
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden