How does one cope with the death of one’s child? That is the question implicit in a small, limited-edition book of poems and paintings titled From Luminous Shade.
The poems are movingly brief expressions of grief by Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970) on the loss of his 9-year-old son. In all other respects, this is a Vermont project. Newbury resident Ann McGarrell translated the poems, and small, full-color reproductions of 15 paintings by Woodstock artist Margaret Lampe Kannenstine are interspersed throughout. Brownsville publisher Harbor Mountain Press, founded by a poet in 2006, left wide, contemplative blank margins around the poems and gave each painting its own page.
Though Ungaretti wrote the book’s main, 14-poem sequence, “Il Dolore,” during World War II, his work speaks timelessly to McGarrell and Kannenstine. The two longtime friends dedicated their “volume of love and loss” to their own children: David Kannenstine, who died at age 47 in March 2009 of pancreatic cancer; and Flo McGarrell, who was 35 when he died in the Haiti earthquake in January 2010.
Kannenstine painted the pictures in From Luminous Shade during her son’s painful, five-month decline and after his death. “A lot of people journal and write,” notes Kannenstine, 74, who has been painting since she earned her master’s in fine art at Washington University decades ago. “I realized my best way of journaling would be to do my painting.”
In the book, the paintings, which use heavy brushstrokes to convey mood, are arranged roughly in the order in which Kannenstine created them. The dark, nocturnal landscapes and frozen, angular tree branches in the first half, she says, document “the process I went through as my son approached death.” But gradually, as the book progresses, the paintings become brighter and depict sunlit hillsides and flowering apple trees — a tribute to David, a jazz musician who also worked as a business representative for an upstate-New York apple orchard.
Ungaretti’s poems take the same turn away from darkness — a direction McGarrell and Kannenstine’s book title is meant to reflect. The moving line “How can I bear the weight of so much night?” appears twice in the early poems of “Il Dolore.” But by the 11th, the poet is writing, “May something of this lacerating love / remain, past shards of darkness, / if out of hell I reach a quiet place.”
“There is this great, dark affinity between Ungaretti and [Kannenstine’s] paintings,” notes McGarrell. The Italian poet’s son died of a botched appendectomy, she says, so Ungaretti and Kannenstine both endured a “long, painful farewell” to their sons.
McGarrell says the coming together of the Italian poet and the Vermont artist’s work was like “the ship meeting the iceberg,” but it was a “serendipitous collision.” McGarrell, a professional translator since 1994, had translated “Il Dolore” in the early 1980s while living for 13 years in Italy. While visiting Kannenstine after David’s diagnosis, McGarrell took one look at the painting Kannenstine was then working on — a nocturnal one, though the two women still can’t agree on which it was — and thought immediately of the Italian poet’s work. “Have you ever heard of Ungaretti?” she asked the painter.
When McGarrell’s own child died suddenly, not long after — Flo had been born a girl but later chose to be a man — the idea of the book came to make perfect sense. Flo was born in Italy and had loved his mother’s translations of Ungaretti when he first heard them as a 9-year-old, she says. And, like Kannenstine, he was an artist, a sculptor who had moved to Haiti to direct a center for indigenous art in Jacmel, one of the country’s most art-oriented towns.
McGarrell recalls that, after the earthquake, she and her husband waited 10 days for news of Flo. A friend finally borrowed a satellite phone from a United Nations guard to relate that he had been killed almost instantly inside a collapsed hotel.
McGarrell thinks of From Luminous Shade as “a pendant to [Flo’s] life.” “He was a very fertile mind, an innovative artist, excruciatingly honest,” she says, “and I thought I had to be as honest as he had been, facing that irreplaceable loss. The only thing I could do was bring some words to it.” After the project came out, however, she admits she “couldn’t bear to” look at it.
Kannenstine, on the other hand, says that “doing this [book] has been very healing.” She helped coordinate an exhibit through Burlington City Arts’ Art Sales and Leasing program of the original paintings, along with framed letterpress broadsides of Ungaretti’s poems and McGarrell’s translations, at Fletcher Allen Health Care.
On view through mid-July, the exhibit is located in the third-floor rotunda in the main corridor connecting the old and new wings. No informational plaque is included, but a price list is available at the information desk. Kannenstine says she has already sold three of her paintings and adds, “They’re for sharing!”
Kannenstine says about her child’s death, “There’s nothing worse. The hole in your heart never leaves.” But with time, she adds, “you’re able to remember things that were fun, or funny, and laugh about them, and not burst into tears.”
"From Luminous Shade" by Giuseppe Ungaretti, Margaret Lampe Kannenstine and Ann McGarrell, Harbor Mountain Press, unpaginated. $21. Available at harbormountainpress.org.
Paintings by Kannenstine, at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington. Through July.