Sweet brother, if I do not sleepMy eyes are flowers for your tomb
So Merton wrote in “For My Brother: Reported Missing in Action, 1943.” Merton’s brother John Paul was killed after his plane crashed in the North Sea during a bombing mission. He was pulled from the water into a rubber dinghy but died there three hours later. His body was buried at sea.
I thought of Merton as a result of a previous blog piece I wrote, about the poetry of Episcopal priest Louie Skipper. By the time I sat down to write here, we’d had the news about Afghanistan. I thought of Merton’s poem for his brother as a subtext for Obama’s decision to send in 30,000 additional troops.
The sleepless eyes becoming flowers on a beloved brother’s tomb is an image that is strange, utterly moving and unfortunately completely timely once again.
I’ve always called up those first two lines of Merton’s poem faithfully, as a kind of mantra, or so I thought. However when I went back to look the poem over again in preparation for this blog entry, I was surprised to find my memory had altered them.
Though I recollected the first line accurately, Merton’s second line had morphed into:
Sweet brother, if I do not sleep, Let my eyes be flowers for your grave.
The rhythms, the feeling, the idea, the untranslatable grief embedded in the language had taken up residence inside me, but as an adopted child with different genes.
Who knows why this happens. We respond to something so strongly we want to commit it to memory. So: We do but (without intending to) we may change its tune. (I’ve found this with so many poems I’ve memorized; each time I think I have remembered/recited exactly, only to find later I’ve changed a word or left one out.) Perhaps some peculiar inborn rhythm of our own insists on its own way in the world, even when we’re paying homage to someone else’s poetry? Or it might be simple inattentiveness, faulty recall.
Merton’s mother wrote that, even as a tiny child he would run out into the garden waving his arms at the vivid scene, singing and crying “O sun!” and “O color!” She had him pegged as a poet early on.
Even if we didn’t exhibit the lingual joy in the world Merton seems to have, perhaps we poets are all born with a similar idiosyncratic cadence of utterance inside us.
Why did I change “tomb” to “grave”? I don’t really know.
“Tomb” is more monumental, stately, “permanent” than a simple grave in the earth, but it’s also—to my ear—emotionally colder and (despite names, dates, dedications) somehow more impersonal. Perhaps that is exactly why Merton chose that word over the other.
John Paul’s tomb was an icy nightmare sea between warring countries. You can’t get more impersonal—or more personal—than that.
“For My Brother: Reported Missing in Action, 1943” can be found in The Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton. New Directions Publishing, 2005.