Sunday, January 23, 2011

Writ On Water

I was 19 years old and a sophomore in college when I first "discovered" poetry. I had, of course, read poems before -- I even had a few go-to verses and a budding obsession with TS Eliot that had taken root the first time my dad handed me a copy of "The Book of Practical Cats" -- but I was still, as a general rule, not someone you might expect to find sitting under a tree with a volume of Shelley or draped over some basement couch with the beat poets. I preferred stories, like with plots and characters and all that silly stuff, and I was loath to tackle any poem longer than two or three stanzas as a general rule. Poetry was, to put it mildly, my road less traveled.

Dramatic as it sounds, all that changed instantly the moment I walked through the door of my Romantic Poetry Seminar and cracked open that first page of John Keats. Two lines into A Song of Opposites I went from a skeptical student to a dedicated disciple. Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake: I loved all of them wildly, but my heart still belonged to that young English poet who so famously penned the words "Beauty is truth, truth beauty -- that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." (Ode on a Grecian Urn)

A few years later, when I visited Rome, I made a point of stopping by Keats' apartment, which he shared with the Shelleys (Mary and Percy, both of course famous in their own rights). This is also the place where Keats ultimately died -- after his entire family died of TB and he himself also caught it, he came to Italy for the air, which was thought to be better than the cold, wet British climate. Keats passed away at age 26 after a far-too-short career and a far-too-long battle with chronic respiratory illness, from which he knew he would eventually die. I consider this to be a great loss, not only for the genius of his art, but for the fact that he was both brave enough to keep writing in the face of his own pain and even death, and scared enough to let that shine through in his poems. He was honest and playful, and he created beauty out of an extremely painful truth, all of which led me to leave his apartment and make a special pilgrimage to his gravesite in the Protestant Cemetery not far away. And it was there that I first read these words:

Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ On Water.

Keats wrote this himself, and asked for it to be placed on his gravestone. I won't get into the interpretations of this by historians or literature scholars (which are varied), nor the additional words added by Keats' friends after his death. What I will say is that these words struck me extremely hard as a person, as a poet (or, at the very least, a poetry reader), and as a patient. To think that this young man, so careful and talented with words, chose to leave on his grave a personal message of impermanence, of the fleeting nature of life and the return to the same glossy surface when we're done, is almost unbearably sad. To think that he found such a gorgeous image to express his heartache and that he made not only his art, but also his life and even his gravestone a poem is beyond inspiring. Even tragedy has its sparkle.

Alas, I am not John Keats, and I can find no such lyrics for my own sense of loss this weekend. Two gorgeous souls, one of whom I was honored and blessed to call a very close personal friend and both of whom were a huge part of my life here in NY and at my transplant center, have moved on from this life into whatever comes next. They were also close friends, and I truly hope that they are together now laughing and taking silly pictures. Tina and Tom, you were and are two of the most beautiful souls I have ever had the privilege of knowing. I will miss your wit, your love, your sarcasm, your funny faces, and your insights. Thank you for the cupcakes, and the laughter, and really amazing conversations. I love you always.

And as I look out now over the lights reflected in the Hudson River, I know that we may all very well be simply "writ on water," but that doesn't make us shine any less brightly.


  1. Oh, Piper. What a beautiful tribute to Tom and Tina. I know you are broken hearted at the loss of your friends and that makes me hurt for you. Please know I am thinking of both of them and their families and praying also for you for comfort and peace.


  2. Really beautiful, Piper. I'm sad that you're hurting right now...

  3. Truly Gorgeous.. I'm sorry for everyones loss of these beautiful people and you have inspired me to go research Keats and his poetry deeply. I knew nothing of him until now.

  4. Thank you for sharing your heart. It was beautiful.