A Villanelle for Ulla

It’s gone so quickly. In just fourteen days,
     from standing upright on her own two feet,
now small and weak and lying in a daze.

"I walk myself down to the shops. Always!
     And maybe buy some milk and something sweet."
It’s gone so quickly; in just fourteen days.

"I’m very active, even nowadays,
     enjoy the weather – sun, or wind, or sleet."
Now small and weak and lying in a daze.

"I always loved the sunset’s brilliant blaze
     across the sea; there’s nothing can compete!"
It’s gone so quickly. In just fourteen days.

"We used to live beside the sea. I’d gaze
     for hours at the waves’ advance, retreat."
Now small and weak and lying in a daze.

Her look confused, she seems to try to phrase
     a question, but can’t find a word that’s meet.
It’s gone so quickly, in just fourteen days,
Now small and weak and lying in a daze.
Villanelle: A painting of the sunset over the islands of Gothenburg's western archipelago made by Ulla Gustafsson
The sunset over the islands of Gothenburg’s western archipelago, by Ulla Gustafsson

There is far too much dying going on at present. While so much of our attention is on the premature deaths caused by the coronavirus we risk forgetting that Death is still open for business as normal.

Last week Ulla, my mother-in-law, died. Not as a consequence of Covid-19 but from Alzheimer’s. She was diagnosed two or three years ago and we’d seen a gradual decline over that time, but the speed with which she went at the end was shocking. I wrote the above villanelle on 3rd April after having seen her for the first time in 2 weeks. I’d been self-isolating after my return from England mid-March. She died in her own home early on the morning of the 9th. My wife, her eldest daughter, was sitting with her. A month earlier, in March, Ulla celebrated her 91st birthday.

I was trying out a range of unfamiliar verse forms as part of an April poetry challenge. This form, the “Villanelle”, is the one Dylan Thomas uses in “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”. I gave up the poetry exercise on the 9th April. I found I’d lost the urge.

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