Losing Things — An Art I’ve Mastered

I can’t blame it on getting older.  I’ve done it all my life.  I mean, I lose things.

You know how it goes.  Just when you need your keys, they’re not where you just know you left them.  Frantic searching ensues. Sometimes you find them immediately; other times you look on and off for a while, almost (and maybe sometimes actually) resorting to using the backup set of keys (if you can find them).

I promise myself I’ll always put the keys in a bowl on the bookcase just by the door, if I don’t leave them in the door itself and lock the deadbolt from the inside.  Of course, at times I come inside with a full armload of things, bump the door closed, and set the keys down somewhere else and forget about it until I need them and . . . they’re gone!  Lost!

Sometimes it’s my cell phone.  More times than I can count, I’ve had to use my landline to call the cell phone so that I can locate it.  I’ll even take the landline outside to the car, hoping to hear the cell phone ring.  That usually works.  If I’m out somewhere, though, that won’t work and I have to find a friend to call it.  Week before last this happened when I was out shopping at Hobby Lobby.  I went to the car, put my things in, and got in the car.  I drove off, and at a stop sign looked for my phone — not in the purse.  Not in the passenger’s seat.  Nowhere that I could see.  I drove back to the store, went inside, and no one had found it.  I went back to the car and looked again.  No luck.  Back into the store, where a kind stranger tried to call it.  No luck.  Only then did I realize that I could use the Find My Phone feature on my iPad mini — and a few minutes later found my phone.  It was, in fact, in the car after all.  Just hiding in a weird place, where I guess I’d tipped it when I was putting my shopping bag into the seat.

The most troubling thing that I’m missing now, though, is my Social Security card, which is in (I think) a white leather zip-around wallet.  That is, needless to say, also missing.  I realized this loss after the government shutdown.  Can’t get a replacement card until that’s over.  With my luck, I’ll find it as soon as I get a replacement card.  Unless I left it at the Egan house, which I don’t remember doing.  Not that that means anything — it could be there, right on my dresser in my bedroom there.  I’ll check when I head there in a couple of days.

Elizabeth Bishop has a wonderful poem about losing things — “One Art,”  a lovely villanelle.  She says:

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

I’ve certainly mastered it, that’s clear.  Though I’ve not yet reached the immediate acceptance stage without fluster, even though I do lose things often enough if not daily.

She continues, advising us:

“Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.”

No, not disaster.  Not yet, anyway.  There was one near-disaster, fortunately avoided the time that I realized I’d forgotten my passport as I was leaving for Greece once (along with the tickets) — but only 10 minutes out of town, so I was able to return home without much time lost, pick up the ticket and passport (sitting right on the table where I’d left them, meaning to put them in my purse), get back on the road, and make my flight in Houston.

Bishop next tells of escalating losses —

“I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.”

Obviously Bishop’s moving into exaggeration here, once she moves beyond the possible (losing her mother’s watch) to the less likely losses — a house, two cities, realms, two rivers, and a continent.  At this point when I read the poem, I always smile as she ratchets up the losses into grander and less likely losses.  Ah, you might think that this is a comic poem, but that’s when Bishop yanks you back to reality and a darker kind of loss:

“- Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”

The last stanza grounds us in reality, in the darker reality of loss, of a person.  Whether the loss results from a lover’s departure or from a broken friendship or from death of a loved one, these lines quickly remind us how easy it is to master such loss.  Not in the sense of being able to shrug it off — it’s simply “not too hard to master,” in fact rather easy.  No, not hard at all, “though it may look (Write it!) like disaster.”

This past summer in a poetry workshop, we were working on the villanelle form for a couple of days, and Bishop’s fine poem is one of the most common examples of how a villanelle works — and one of the most intimidating, because she makes it look so easy.  That’s really difficult to pull off when you have to figure out the whole form and make it sound so natural.  Elizabeth Bishop’s poem is, with Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” perfect as a model for how the villanelle is meant to work, both technically and poetically.

Villanelles don’t have any set meter or line length, but have 19 lines, in six stanzas –five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a quatrain (four-line stanza).  Villanelles also use two lines and repeats two lines throughout the poem. The first line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas; the last line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas.  Both lines appear in the last stanza.  Poets.org says this about the rhyme pattern, “Using capitals for the refrains and lowercase letters for the rhymes, the form could be expressed as: A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2. ”

 Because of the repetitions that structure them, villanelles lend themselves to topics that have some kind of repetitive thought or action.  Some writers see the villanelle as having a sort of three-part movement, where the position of the repeated lines (in context of the other, non-repeating lines) can build in intensity, shift meaning, and move the poem into a kind of debate of sorts.  It’s easy to see how the villanelle could become a rather obsessive working through of a topic, an idea, a question.  Villanelle don’t have to be dark and serious; some are more light-hearted.
But Bishop’s “One Art,” for me,  is a perfect blend of light and dark.  It begins with the light-hearted losses we all know immediately — and laugh about.  It even invites a kind of complacency about the light-heartedness when it moves into losing things like cities or continents.   The last stanza, though, takes us unexpectedly into the darker losses.  The power of that last stanza resonates so strongly precisely because it is such an unexpected turn.
And for me right now, it highlights the nature of loss.  Just as I’ve recently lost things like keys and mobile phone (a pretty ordinary, common kind of loss that isn’t a disaster), and my Social Security card (which isn’t a disaster either), I’ve also been reminded of the darker kind of loss, to death, as I was when I attended the family reunion last weekend.
Losses repeat throughout our lives.   A lot are casual and unimportant, though annoying.  Some , though, are profound, and just as the villanelle requires refrains and repetitions, such loss has similar requirements.  The griefs we experience through broken relationships or through the finality of death repeat throughout our lives, coming back at unexpected times and unexpected contexts, reminding us that grief doesn’t work in linear fashion at all.  It will return; it will repeat.  But, if we’re fortunate, we do not obsess over the loss, but learn to anticipate it, and if we can do so, that recognition enables us to work through the refrain and return from it, shortening and perhaps softening the time period and the effect.
We learn to live with loss, each in our different way.
Luckily, right now I can live without my Social Security card.  I’m told (by the Social Security office) that my passport will suffice next Tuesday when I have an appointment to apply for Social Security benefits– I don’t need my card or my birth certificate.
And that’s a good thing.  I haven’t lost my birth certificate.  It’s in the safety deposit box in the Crowley bank that Mother and Dad used, and that I now use.  But just where oh where is the key to the safety deposit box?  I thought I had it only two or three days ago and put it somewhere safe, where I’d find it.
Right.  Here I go again.
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