I’ve never liked the British poet W.H. Auden. There is something about his language that unnerves me. Take his poem “Funeral Blues,” for example. For one thing, I don’t like the pairing of my name with the word “funeral.” I realize Auden is referring to musical form, but I dislike how the color blue has become synonymous with melancholia.
For another thing, I don’t like the details of the poem. “Airplanes moaning overhead… a dog barking over a bone … traffic cops in black gloves.” It feels more like a cartoon than a funeral, like funerary satire. It strikes me as emotionally chaotic – not a clean, focused grief – but grief as something mechanical. Something gritty and unappealing. Something hard to live with.
But still W.H. Auden was on my mind that day, a few summers back, when I was living in Beijing and needed a black dress to wear to a funeral. It is not easy to go dress shopping in the People’s Republic of China when you’re a man. Actually, it’s not easy to go dress shopping anywhere when you’re a man. But while I was window-shopping in the hutongs, or local alleyways, I found an ink black dress with a conservative cut that fit perfectly. I wandered out into the street with the dress in a brown paper bag, wondering how I was going to keep it from getting wrinkled on the flight back to California.
I had been dreading this flight home for some time. This was partially because I had not started packing, but mostly because there was someone who I had left behind in Berkeley that I was not ready to see again. Actually, he had left me – a month before I went to Beijing – and I still had not managed to accept that he would not be waiting for me at the airport when I came back.
Being an ex-boyfriend is not an exact science, but I knew I was doing it wrong. High-functioning ex-boyfriends do not buy modest black dresses in foreign countries and wish to be picked up at airports. They move on with their lives.
Sitting on the plane, I had some thoughts about how I might do that. I imagined myself holding flutes of champagne on redwood balconies facing the Bay Bridge at sunset. I imagined myself reading Michel Foucault at Mission Dolores Park, with an older man massaging my feet.
“There’s no revenge more terrible than going on to have a good life,” my grandmother would have told me. “It drives your enemies to despair.”
But that was the trouble. My first love wasn’t the enemy. He was the only man I had ever really trusted. I came back to Berkeley, but nothing moved forward. After six months of putting up with my alternatingly despondent and erratic moods, my friends decided it was time to throw me a funeral.
For the relationship.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that party planning is one of the five stages of gay grieving. Everyone pitched in. There were bunches of fake flowers – white lilies with little plastic dew drops on synthetic petals. There was even a glass jewelry box that someone donated (a gift from another ex-boyfriend) to use as a small coffin. Into it went a coupon my first love had given me (good for one sleep over); a photograph of us kissing outside an Oscar Wilde House party; and a pair of Calvins he left in my bedroom when he stayed with my family over the holidays.
It had been decided that the burial would take place in the hills behind Clark Kerr Campus. I struggled up the trail in my conservatively cut black dress until we came to a place where we could dig. No one had a shovel.
A shovel was the sort of thing my first love would have brought.
We held a short funeral service, but only I cried. I felt like I should read something, and the first thing that came to mind was W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues.”
There was one line in particular that kept ricocheting around my head. “He was my North, my South, my East, my West.” My first love was the four directions. Our relationship was the most beautiful thing that ever happened to me, and I had to go all the way across the Pacific Ocean to find an outfit to bury it in.
It’s been years, but I still have the black dress and I still think of the W.H. Auden poem at certain times of day when the hills cast long shadows and airplanes fly out of San Francisco. I’ve noticed a shift in the poem’s meaning, however. To fall in love with someone so deeply that they become the four directions means you have allowed yourself to be surrounded on all sides and now direction is meaningless.
Which suggests that the chaos of first love is really a chaos of interpretation.
Blue Fay writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on the relationship between art and chaos. Contact him at [email protected].