Ten years later, it is still impossible to think about the death of a man--a boy--that changed my understanding of the world and all the people in it.
I wrote this piece for my senior seminar class in response to the question: Why did you become an English major? Although I read it aloud in class (which was a painful, tearful, thoroughly humiliating experience), I've been holding onto it since then and thinking about publishing it one day. Well... this being the tenth anniversary of Justin's death, I thought it might be appropriate to share it with you. Please forgive the walk down memory lane.
Apology: My experience as an English major at St. Mary’s College of Maryland cannot be separated from the life and death of my close friend Justin Bates, the eldest son of English professor Robin Bates. I am sorry if this makes the story I must tell somewhat inappropriate or uncomfortable for this classroom setting. I could lie, but that would be a disservice to me, Justin, the English major, and this assignment.
The Midwife to my Intellectual Birth
Sometimes I still see Justin on the paths around campus. He is tall and so blond that his hair might be white. His head is always upturned to the sky, as though he could pluck from the heavens the answers to yet another of his unanswerable dilemmas. I go to talk with him—tell him about my life and how it’s going and how I discovered Renaissance poetry and my joys and pains in the time since he has left me.
But when I get near enough, it is never Justin. It never will be Justin again.
We are gathered around a tiny table in lower Montgomery Hall, hunched over maroon volumes of Norton Anthology of British Literature 2. Justin is late again, so Becca and I have started looking at the poems assigned for tomorrow. Last week, we read Blake’s Songs of Innocence; today we are looking at the “Tyger”. We are not really talking about the poem. We are chatting of things that do not matter, like how we’ll go visit our boyfriends at fall break and how hungry we are.
Justin arrives and, after teasing him about giving him a thorough whomping with the heavy books on the table, we settle in to play with language. As we discuss it and read it over and over, the images begin to dance. The words are alive and we speak them over and over and something magical happens when we get to the part “Did he who make the lamb make thee?” and suddenly Justin exclaims loudly because the universe has opened up wide and a vision explodes in our heads. He has been struggling, studying, contemplating faith and Christianity and here it all is, beautifully summarized by Blake’s poetry.
His religion cannot be the innocent “Lamb,” because then he, as a flawed man could not ever participate in it. Neither is he satisfied with the cruel callousness of the religion in the fearsome “Tyger”. But together—a God gentle enough for a child and forgiving enough for a man but powerful enough to inspire awe and test humanity—that (at least in that one moment) is Justin’s God.
And mine too, though I do not believe in God. I think of it differently. Nevertheless, in the moment that I am one with the poem and with the language and nature and religion, I know I will end up being an English major in college.
I go down to visit the river, past the graveyard where many I have never known lay buried. The summer sky is threatening rain. I would welcome such a breaking storm. There are the words I sought: “He is made one with nature. There is heard/ His voice in all her music, from the moan/ Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;/ He is a presence to be felt and known/ In darkness and in light, from herb and stone.” Perhaps once Shelley wrote them for Keats, but I imagine they are written about my friend whose memorial they adorn. His presence in me is felt and known.
The storm breaks. Heavy rains pour over me and I am new-baptized. I converse with Shelley about Justin and write his name on the water that dragged him under one year ago. I scream at the storm. I demand my dead friend back again that I might tell him all the things I never finished saying to him… and all the new things I have discovered.
I wonder if Justin is where he thought he would be. I believe he is. In a heaven that I do not believe in. I suppose it is odd for me to believe he is sitting up there in a heaven with a God and a Christ I do not believe in. So I begin to speak with God.
I remind him first that I do not believe in him. Therefore, I feel it necessary to explain why I am speaking with an entity I do not believe in, and I tell him of Aristotle’s demonstration of the universal human ability to recognize geometric figures. Mathematics is like God. How many of us have seen a perfect sphere? Yet we all know what that is and can see it just as easily as if it were sitting right in front of us. Oh, there are “spheres” in the world that we can use to assist our imaginations in constructing the object in our minds, but they are not perfect with all the mathematical properties we equate with spheres.
Geometry exists only in our minds… and yet, somehow it reaches beyond all of the individual selves and transcends many minds… all minds. It is within entirely, and yet it is more than any individual human. So I explain to God why I speak with him and how I know him to exist, without believing in him.
Religion, well Christian religion, is the opposite of nature. So how then do the words that Justin is made one with nature provide comfort when I would rather he be one with his religion? Perhaps in death nature and religion meet more uniformly.
The rain has stopped. I go back inside and go to sleep.
Reading Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella in Spring and contemplating the act of writing, specifically my own, I happen upon a poem. “You take wrong ways, those far-fet helps be such/ As do bewray a want of inward touch,” Sidney writes.
These words… this poem… it is written to me. I know academically and intellectually that Sidney, 500 years ago, could not possibly have been sitting at his writing desk imagining such a mind as my own for which he must write this poem, but yet I imagine… no, I more than imagine, I KNOW… that this poem is written for me. My life, my work… I am the one “running in rattling rows”.
I cry out for Sidney and beat my own chest and ravenously try to gulp all of the language down at once. Other poems offer some comfort for the personal flaws he attacked in Sonnet 15, but not enough. I think he understands me, though. Both he and I… we cannot choose but write our minds, and we cannot choose but put out what we write.
Writing is passion and compulsion. It is beautiful and deadly. It holds power, and yet is nothing more than markings on a page.
At last, I understood why Justin thought it dangerous to continue our study group after that first semester. But I suppose he discovered things more dangerous than words. Me, I still love words and the sort of cathartic, intensely personal connection with poetry that he and I both could experience is how he lives on in me.