I wish I could tell you why I loved Kate Atkinson‘s A God in Ruins, a companion piece to 2013’s Life After Life. It’s been weeks since I finished the novel, and I still don’t feel up to the task of fully addressing our love story. Suffice it to say, in internet parlance, A God in Ruins has left me “feeling all the feels.”
While Teddy’s experience as a WWII bomber pilot are the core of the book as well as Teddy himself, he retains the heart of a (failed) poet throughout his life, and this is what I love about A God in Ruins. In his quiet, postwar existence in the north of England, Teddy relies on old-fashioned values: kindness and a stiff upper lip. Yet it is also clear to me, through Teddy’s habit of quoting bits of poesy, that he relies on poetry. While meditating on the graves of comrades, Teddy references Emily Dickinson, reflecting that the fallen are “safe in their alabaster chambers.” As he contemplates the last wish of his dying wife, Teddy turns to Keats: “‘To cease upon the midnight with no pain‘… Didn’t Nancy deserve that?”
I have never bombed Europe, nor do I have a wife to assist with suicide. I, too, though, rely on poetry. The relationship grew out of my need to be constantly reading. I spent a lot of down time in high school perusing my literature textbook. One poem, Robert Frost‘s “Choose Something Like a Star” (1916) offered me a sentiment that’s guided me ever since:
“Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.”
Here Frost speaks to my tendency to self-soothe, my favored coping mechanism, a partiality to nostalgia, and a habit that, like Teddy’s, I hope will last a lifetime.
In college, when I was exposed to poetry daily, I found Wendy Cope and Elizabeth Bishop in my Norton Anthology and then found comfort in memorizing and reciting their work to myself. I read Robert Browning‘s “Rabbi Ben Ezra“–the poem whose name you don’t know but that begins with “Grow old along with me!/ The best is yet to be”–at exactly the right moment. To cope with the shame of transferring from my prestigious college to one decidely less so, as well as the task of revising my inner narrative, I repeatedly told myself
“… I prize the doubt
Low kinds exist without,
Finished and finite clods, untroubled by a spark.”
It worked. It all worked. There’s no one I’d rather have in my head during a crisis than Robby B.