What's more, the man is trying to walk

1st November 2002 at 00:00
CARRYING THE ELEPHANT: a memoir of love and loss. By Michael Rosen. Penguin pound;7.99.

Michael Rosen. Ah, Michael Rosen. We all know him, don't we? Smelly Jelly and Uncle Billy and We're Going On A Bear Hunt. Michael Rosen of the poetry reading, the school visit, the educational conference, the radio broadcastI No, we don't. This slim volume of prose poems is a different Michael Rosen altogether. The temptation would be to say this is the private Michael Rosen, but it's far more personal than that. This is Michael Rosen with his skin off, his guts hanging out, his feelings jumping off the page with a rawness that makes you want to avert your eyes and read no more.

The book arches from his left-wing Jewish upbringing by two teacher parents to a world where "daisy cutter" bombs are launched on Afghanistan, but it is really a collection about one subject - the out-of-the-blue death of his 18-year-old son Eddy from meningitis.

The horror and grief of this turn everything else in the book into brackets around it. It would be difficult for anyone who has loved a child to read of this death and its aftermath without feeling their stomach clench and churn with Rosen's loss. On the last night of his son's life, when the boy is lying on the sofa, feeling "fed-up, aching", but seemingly just down with a bug, Rosen reads out to him a riddle he has contributed to a new anthology.

"Do you get it?

Yes, he said, your bum.

That's it, I said.

Your bum.

Yes, those were his last words."

Then come thoughts of how big the boy had grown, the size of his hand; the way his wrists showed beneath his shirtsleeves; "The way the guys couldn't keep hold of his body bag as they tried to slide it downstairs."

How does a parent live with such a thing? If you are Rosen, you it write down. How your son's body, brought home from the morgue, is wrapped in a bin liner beneath the shirt. How your neighbour, Rob, says: "Rather you than me," then wishes you good luck for Saturday, when Arsenal are playing Spurs.

He does all the things people do in the face of death - look for comfort from people who've been there before, close down bank accounts, write back to sympathisers: "Yes, it is unfair and cruel. It also makes me tired with a tiredness that hangs on like a dog. It's nice of you to say you'll remember him. You won't."

People ask him how he can carry on. He writes: "I wonder if I look like someone who looks like it's possible to carry on." In Paris he buys a card of a Jean-Baptiste Oudry engraving, an illustration for a La Fontaine fable. A man is carrying an elephant, "bending under the weight...What's more, the man is trying to walk."

Rosen is walking with this book, but the elephant is still there. Time moves him on, but his eye on the world stays bleak. To estimate the precise literary merit of these poems would be beside the point. They are good because Rosen takes you with him to places you'd rather not go; because they make you hug your living children, and remember that you walk through life on something no thicker than eggshells.

But they are also good at the telling detail, like how the oldest drovers' hut in Australia has flattened-out cans nailed to its walls as protection against the wind; good, too, on early memories of his mother's quiet humour, or how as a child he was taken to Berlin, where his brother photographed Hitler's bombed-out bunker.

Maybe because of his post-war Jewish upbringing, the world appears a menacing place even before tragedy strikes. His university examiners grill him without mercy; he is mistakenly summoned to court for selling fake perfume in Oxford Street.

You wonder how he maintains his hallmark appreciation of the absurd, but it is still there, in spite of everything. "I got a letter home saying that RE is compulsory. So I sent a letter back saying it isn't. They sent me a letter back saying but it is. So I sent them a letter back saying I've got the government papers saying it isn't and you're breaking the law saying that it is. And they sent a letter back saying OK it isn't and we'll write a letter home to everyone telling them it isn't."

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