Vigils, Sarah Akehurst
Handsel Press, 2021 £6.00
The smallest things
Sarah Akehurst’s ten poems are centred on the life and death of her son Jonny, who died in January 2020, aged 21. She anchors her grief and loss in small, physical objects, those inescapable constant reminders of what they shared. It’s both individual and universal; these are everyday, taken-for-granted things anyone might handle in the course of an average day. It’s the fact of their being nothing-special that makes them so special.
Walks, picnics; the things that mothers do with their children. ‘Picnic in July (Iona) — July 2019’ is about —
How it was the most rudimentary of picnics —
a sandwich and two chocolate biscuits and an apple.
You did not eat the apple after all.
It could have been a failure of a day, not reaching the farther beach they’d planned for. There’s a note of regret lingering in ‘after all’, but there are cowries, and a limpet shell:
[ … ] you said we could make rosaries out of shells,
though I could not quite see how.
And we looked at the shells and were puzzled, as we often are.
The play of tenses — ‘were’ and ‘are’ — keeps the puzzlement lasting, and alive. In the same way, the shells reappear in ‘Remembering — May 2020’ when it’s the broken shells that make the rosary; ‘it wasn’t such a puzzle after all’. But that doesn’t end the physical connections because
I keep on making things from other things —
from what’s discarded,
that is how I best remember you.
Part of remembering includes picking up more shells on the same walks, maintaining continuity. All this is set within the over-arching framework of Akehurst’s Christian faith, in which the act of remembering becomes both a rite and a celebration of the best of Jonny’s life. Her final poem, ‘Jonathan — 15th July 2020’ opens with her commitment ‘Not to forget the smallest thing’ and also ends with it:
For now there’s silence,
milestones, memory, I hope
never to forget the smallest thing.
This collection is a delicate, moving observation of the scale of grief.
D A Prince