Obituary of a Wartime Spy (#1)

I was very heartened by the recent New York Times project called “Overlooked” addressing the fact that many accomplished and, indeed, heroic women were never given an obituary in the Times due to the fact that they were women and deemed not important enough to merit a eulogy in print. Such Better-Late-Then-Never acknowledgement is so important. The Times project inspired me to dig out a poetry project I began some time ago while in a class at The Poetry School in London led by the superb British poet and writer Simon Barraclough.

For years I have been collecting obituaries–an art form I revere–of intrepid women who lived long and intriguing lives, some with brief flashes of fame, others with enduring careers, most of whom I had never heard of. The women I collected shared a few things: they were women, they were dead, and they had each made it through the obituary gatekeepers to get an avowal of their lives into print and the public eye. They also tended to be quite old when they died. I had no idea what I was going to do with these obituaries but was finally inspired by Simon to make found poems out of them. (My Obituary Series of poems is not to be confused with my series of poems called “Dying,” but they do share a theme, I suppose.) The Times project made me realize that by letting this series of poems languish in a file somewhere on my computer, I was contributing to the great silence that is integral to the female experience on so many fronts and in so many ways. Paradoxically, I value silence greatly, above much else, it is up there with love in my pantheon of virtues, but when silence is used, as it has been so systematically, as a weapon against us, we indulge it at our peril. So in praise of women, of silence, of speaking up, of obituaries, and of poetry, here is the first of my found poems.

Eileen Nearne

Obituary of a Wartime Spy
Eileen Nearne dies at 89

Only the cats remembered
her parachute-heart,
licked her

once-shaven head, admired
her once bright loyalty-
blue eyes.

But one by one they left
her too, padding across
a shadow-life out

into the Torquay brume, leaving
her alone, headed for
a pauper’s grave.

The medals finally gave
her away. “Destiny,”
she liked to say.

(John F. Burns, The New York Times, September 21, 2010)

More on Eileen “Didi” Nearne here and here.



5 Replies to “Obituary of a Wartime Spy (#1)”

  1. Just read this to David in an Italian restaurant and we agree that you’re the most amazing person we know and also our favorite.

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