My favorite section of A Life Beyond Reason: A Father’s Memoir, to be published in 2019 by Beacon Press, is no longer in the book. My editor cut it, and for good reason, but it is still my favorite. It was based on a dream I had while writing the book. I had reached an impasse regarding how to proceed, and one night August appeared to me in a dream and said, “Why don’t you tell a humorous story about the death of your son.”
The next morning I began writing this part. It would have been impossible to follow August’s advice regarding most of the book, but the dream did give me an idea for this particular section, which eventually appeared at the end of a late draft of the manuscript and turned into a modern reworking of the medieval poem Pearl. It isn’t a parody because I love that work too much to make fun of it. Pearl is a long poem presenting a dream vision, a common genre during the Middle Ages. It was written by “the Pearl Poet” (in other words, the author’s name is unknown) who lived in the late 14th century in the midlands of England. You can read more about Pearl in Josephine Livingston’s New Yorker review of Simon Armitage’s 2016 translation here.
In the poem, the poetic speaker is a father, and he is mourning the loss of his three-year-old daughter “Perle” (Pearl). He falls asleep in a garden, and in his dream he encounters the ‘Pearl-maiden’—a beautiful and heavenly woman—standing across a stream in a strange landscape. In response to his questioning and attempts to obtain her, she answers with Christian doctrine. Eventually she shows him an image of the Heavenly City. The Dreamer then awakens suddenly from his dream and reflects on its significance. The most relevant lines are the following (translator is Simon Armitage):
Endless sorrow I have suffered and endured
Since you slipped from my grasp to the grassy earth;
I am hollow with loss and harrowed by pain,
Yet here you stand, lightened of all strife,
At peace in the land of Paradise.
I also drew inspiration from Ben Okri’s short story, “Worlds That Flourish,” one of my favorite short stories.
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