‘Long Distance II’ by Tony Harrison is a four-stanza poem that deals with the irrational manifestations that grief can take. In this work, Harrison relays the nonsensical approaches of a father and his child as they grieve the passing of at least one person, and in both scenarios, their mourning surfaces through actions that are connected to the deceased in ways that simply do not make sense. Both the father and the child realize that these methods of coping could be seen as abnormal, yet they continue with those same patterns of behaviors to manage their heartbreaks.
All in all, this is a work that represents the idiosyncrasies of grief and showcases them in such a relatable manner that the reader can arrive at what could be a shocking conclusion: There is nothing abnormal about treating grief in a nonsensible, or abnormal, way. Rather, grief is a reaction to something barely understandable, and dealing with it in ways that are not logical is somehow fitting and common. You can read the full poem here.
Long Distance II Analysis
Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.
Harrison dives into the heart of the matter in the first line of this first stanza, and that is death. Specifically, the narrator’s mother passed away, and after “two years,” the narrator’s father still behaved, in part, as if she were alive and well. For instance, he made sure “her slippers” were heated, as well as “her side of the bed,” and he even went so far as to “renew her transport pass.” These details hint at a level of denial from the father as if he would not accept that his wife was gone, and the tactics he employed to keep with the delusion are fairly large. He was not just keeping her picture. He was treating her home and the life she left behind as though she would simply step back into them.
As it happens, the methods the father took to keep his wife near were directly tied to concepts that can be linked to losing someone. The tendency to work heat into his grieving through “hot water bottles” and “gas” can represent a person’s feeling of cold emptiness upon losing someone close to them, and the continued effort to insert heat into the midst of that grief can speak volumes in regard to the father’s desperateness to thaw out the coldness of his mourning. The void his wife left was deep and frigid, and he needed relief by any means.
In addition, keeping her “transport pass” active shows a connection to traveling, a concept that relates to a journey that occurs afterlife. Particularly if the father hoped the wife was able to return to him in some form, this “transport” detail reflects not only the general traveling idea, but also his effort to make sure she was capable of making the trip. Sure, she wouldn’t need the “transport” to do these things, but it can be viewed as a metaphor.
You couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone.
as though his still raw love were such a crime.
What was described as the father’s tactics to maintain his delusion begin being treated with a bit more ridicule in this stanza. Whereas in the first stanza, Harrison treats the details as simply given facts, here the narration shifts into explaining why the actions were actually inconvenient. People were not permitted to “just drop in” because the father needed time to “clear away [the mother’s] things and look alone.” This speaks of a level of embarrassment that could be tied to his grief, but it is just as likely that the father knows his grieving mechanisms were not logical. There was no reason why his wife’s shoes would need to be “warm[ed],” but he continued with the process anyway.
This idea validates the sanity of the father, even if the reader by this point had started to doubt it. Granted, he dealt with his grief in a nontraditional way, but he was mentally stable enough to know that he must hide his idiosyncrasies from the public eye. Others would never have understood—they would have probably ridiculed—so his grieving habits had to remain hidden.
The narrator, however, shows evidence in this stanza that they side with their father on the stance since the father’s “clear[ing] away her things” is spoken of in a way that makes it seem unnecessary. To the narrator, hiding evidence of the father’s grief was treating the scenario “as though his still raw love were such a crime.” The delivery of the wording indicates that such a belief was wrong since the line begins with “as if,” which hints at an imagined, presumed state. Had Harrison chosen to say “because,” this word choice would have been evidence that the narrator carried the belief that the father’s grieving tactics were wrong.
It seems, then, that the son or daughter of this father was watching the grief and could see sense in the nonsensical approach. Perhaps, deeper, this understanding showed a shared comprehension of the grief, meaning that only the father and child truly grasped the pain of the mother’s passing.
He couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief
He knew she’d just popped out to get the tea.
The third stanza of ‘Long Distance II’ nearly takes everything that has been expressed about the father and his grief and tosses it aside. Even though the narrator knew about the father’s methods of dealing with his grief and even hinted that they did not believe those tactics “were such a crime,” the beginning line of this section could be an indication that the father was actively trying to hide his mourning techniques from the narrator. The father, per this stanza, “couldn’t risk… [the] disbelief” of the narrator treading on his delusions. On closer inspection, though, something very different can be uncovered at the beginning of this stanza. Particularly, the notion can be inferred that the narrator told the father that he did not hold the same belief that she’d return, but the father refused to accept that “disbelief” because “[h]e couldn’t risk” it.
The other detail that is almost contradicted within this stanza is the father’s sanity. Already, it was established that his cleaning up before the company arrived showed that he was mentally present, but in this third stanza, he seemed devoured by his delusions that his wife hadn’t died. Rather, “she’d just popped out to get the tea” and “very soon he’d hear her key scrape in the rusted lock” from her return.
Again, though, reconciliation between the stanzas’ ideas can be found in being told that the father “couldn’t risk” the “disbelief.” He knew these things were not true, and that is why he had to veer away from the “disbelief.” Knowing that the “disbelief” was valid would lead to ending his mourning practices because there would be no sense in them.
He knew his fantasies were not true. He just was not ready to let them go, and though the delusions were as “rusted” as the “lock” with age and mistreatment, he simply had to hang on to them longer. In essence, this is not a tale of a man who was crazy from grief. It is a tale of a man who was aware, deep down, that his wife was not coming home, but embracing that notion would have felt worse than living like the opposite was true.
I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
and the disconnected number I still call.
In this stanza, the perspective shifts (mimicked in the rhyme scheme shifting from ABAB to ABBA and the change to present tense) so that the narrator is now referencing his own beliefs and grief rather than relaying the story of his father’s. Still, though, the idea behind holding to details of a person who has been taken by death is treated in the same way. There is no sense, to the narrator, in carrying on like the person is still alive or capable of returning. To the narrator, “life ends with death, and that is all.”
This person now being grieved, as it happens, seems to be the father that was grieving earlier in that the narrator says that they “both haven’t gone shopping.” Considering the only two people referenced by the narrator in ‘Long Distance II’ specifically are his mother and father, it is a safe assumption that these two are the ones that create the “both” element being grieved. Seemingly, the father has died, and the narrator is now grieving that loss as well.
Even knowing that there is no use in holding to nonsensical grieving habits, “just the same,” the narrator has taken the time to write their “name” “in [his] new black leather phone book,” and he “still call[s]” them. One could argue that this is a tendency that could occur out of habit, but given with the precursor that the narrator knows that his parents “haven’t… gone shopping,” it almost has to be a deliberate practice. Otherwise, there would be no need to quality his “belie[fs]” before addressing the tendency since it would have been an honest mistake.
As it stands, the narrator is saying that he realizes there is no sense to this action, but he keeps “call[ing]” anyway. Like his father, his grief is not manifesting in ways that make sense. Also like his father, he knows that his actions are illogical. Most of all though, like his father, he keeps grieving the same way, holding on to these little details of what remains of those passed on even though no rational argument can validate the practice.
Overall, ‘Long Distance II’ addresses the lack of logic that lies behind grief through these two accounts. Mourning, seemingly to Harrison, does not have to be rational. It just needs to be.
About Tony Harrison
Tony Harrison is the English author of a number of poems and plays that he penned in the 20th and 21st centuries. He has won multiple awards and recognition for his writing, including a UNESCO fellowship, and he is also linked to periodical writing and translation work. He has additionally written lyrics, hinting at his varied abilities at manipulating words and measures.