As part of the Poetry Coalition’s programming, the Academy of American Poets asked five renowned poets to reflect on poems that helped them better understand or process grief. 

The seventh annual programming initiative’s theme “and so much lost      you’d think / beauty had left a lesson: Poetry & Grief,” is from the poem “once the magnolia has blossomed” by Ed Roberson

In the fifth and final installment, poet Andrea Cohen reflects on “Les Cloches” (“The Bells”) by Guillaume Apollinaire

Grief rarely flies solo. In Apollinaire’s “Les Cloches” (“The Bells”), it piles in with love and longing, with abandon and abandonment, with shame, and most probably, with regret. This mash-up of emotions presents as an address to a lover who already feels absent, and unfolds (unravels) without punctuation, and yet, with marked restraint.

Unlike her lover, the speaker isn’t headed anywhere beyond the klieg lights of shame. The bells have witnessed what they’ve done––bells with excellent eyesight!––and now, from on high, they’re telling everyone. Swiftly we move from those personified chimes to the very real people (on a first name basis) who will silently, while smiling and passing, pass judgment. How fallen is our speaker? She might as well have plummeted from one of those bell towers. 

And her grief? It’s the expectation of grief, the inevitability of it. She knows that tomorrow her lover will already be gone and far, while her shame will be present and unshakeable. And yet, as she imagines the cost of her love––shame and loss, and we must imagine, a possible child––her address feels restrained and understated. Apollinaire describes the awkwardness of her situation simply and brilliantly, as if she were a thing without a shelf (or a person with no place to hide or rest): “I won’t know where to put myself.” No chest beating, no exclamations, just the quiet, catastrophic truth spoken to one we never hear from: “You’ll be far away I’ll cry / I’ll die of it maybe.”