It was a fraught task, one that required just the right words to encompass the horror and loss, and then the resolve and unity.
When Daniel Johnson was asked to compose verse that would be engraved on memorials to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, he hesitated, feeling his way through the enormity of such a solemn responsibility.
There would be only enough space for two lines, one for each bombing site, no more than 25 words in all.
The poet often spends more than a year polishing a single poem, and it took him seven years to write his first book. Now, he had only a few weeks.
“I didn’t want to fall short on such a significant project,” Johnson said. “This was sacred space to be working in.”
Once a finalist to be Boston’s poet laureate, the 46-year-old from Roslindale had written about loss before, including an elegy reflecting on his long friendship with James Foley, a journalist who was beheaded five years ago by Islamic militants in Syria.
He also felt a deep responsibility to get it right. A marathon runner, it was his community that had been attacked in 2013. And on the day of the bombing, Johnson happened to be at one of the hospitals that treated many victims, swaddling his newborn son.
Soon after Johnson agreed to the job last fall, he began scribbling ideas in his notebook throughout the day — before his children awoke in the morning, at lunch, on the train home.
The goal was to compose a line of verse to be placed at each bomb site on Boylston Street, but that worked together as a couplet. They would be inscribed on two narrow, bronze circles surrounding twisting granite pillars, and they were to follow words commemorating the three who died there: Martin Richard, an 8-year-old third-grader from Dorchester; Lingzi Lu, a 23-year-old Boston University graduate student from China; and Krystle Campbell, a 29-year-old restaurant manager from Medford.
At his first meeting with city officials, he offered this couplet from one of his books:
All we have lost is brightly lost.
What flames copper green? Our grief at night.
“The first line, in particular, has haunted me since I wrote it, especially in the wake of the bombings and Jim’s execution,” Johnson said. “It touches on how loss forever changes one’s perception and perspective.”
That line also appeared to resonate with his audience at City Hall. But he continued to draft dozens of others.
“I felt a lot of pressure,” said Johnson, whose wife had recently given birth to their third child.
But he kept coming back to that first line. With its falling rhythm, it was meant to be pained and elegiac, a “stuttering of fact” written in the present tense, he said, “as a way to impress the immediacy of the events.”
The repetition of “lost,” Johnson added, was meant to mirror the concussive impact of the two bombs and reflect “the profundity of the loss.” The use of the word “brightly” was the equivalent of “lighting a candle in the wake of a hurricane and realizing that everything has been destroyed.”
It is “recognizing that what has been taken away becomes blindingly present in its absence,” Johnson said, such as the face of the deceased or the sound of their voice.
He settled on those seven words for the memorial at the site where Campbell died. Then he began searching for a second line that would join it in a cohesive couplet, even though each would be a block apart.
Those words took much longer to find. It wasn’t until near the deadline early in January, when it came time to engrave the bronze memorial, that he honed the ending, with input from the family of Martin Richard and others. After some final tinkering, Johnson arrived at eight words that will be inscribed on the memorial where Richard and Lu died.
Let us climb, now, the road to hope.
The line came to him through his conversations with the Richards, who suffered deeply as a result of the bombings. In addition to the death of their son, both parents had been injured, and their daughter Jane, 7 years old at the time, lost her left leg. Johnson was touched by their response, all the good the family has done in the face of so much loss and suffering — a park in Martin’s honor outside Boston Children’s Museum, a foundation in his name that promotes community activism.
It inspired him, Johnson said, to give the final line a “rising, striding cadence . . . a move from darkness to light.”
The unusual use of the word “climb” was meant to evoke “the toil” of moving from grief to hope, and also to echo the strength needed to endure the hardest part of the Boston Marathon, the steep climb up Heartbreak Hill in Newton.
“If the lines feel disparate, perhaps it’s because they represent different moments in time,” said Johnson, who was paid $5,000 for his work. “The first calls up the leaden, numb aftermath. The second represents the glacially slow, years-long climb toward recovery and hope.”
An award-winning poet who had been selected for the city’s artist-in-residence program, Johnson for years has brought writing programs to thousands of city kids through a youth-writing center he helped start in Roxbury. Last year he took over as executive director of Mass Poetry, a local nonprofit that seeks to bring poetry to a larger audience.
He had also gotten to know Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who helped choose Johnson to work on the memorial.
“I learned about how Daniel’s life was impacted by terrorism,” Walsh said in a statement, “and I knew from that moment forward that he had to be a part of this memorial.”
Grueling as it was for Johnson, the experience of composing those two lines, and the responsibility those 15 short words will carry for years to come now that they have been cast in bronze, has been humbling.
“My hope is that they will provide a balm on some level, lift people up, and help reclaim that space,” Johnson said.