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Essay

Left Behind

Can poetry comfort the grieving?
Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein, "Orpheus and Eurydice"

When my mother died, eight years ago, I stopped reading poetry. A strange thing for a poet to say, but it’s true. In fact, it wouldn’t be overstating it to say that I hated poetry after my mother died.

Poems felt false. I resisted, especially, the kind of piece whose impulse is to resolve. These poems, many of which were sent to me by well-meaning friends, reduced death to a salvo. It was unbearable to be confined to the limits of their “meanings” at a time when the territory of mourning was expanding before me, and it appeared to be infinite.

My discomfort with language spread from poetry to moment-to-moment thinking. People said that I would find a metaphor for where my mother was. I understand this often happens for grieving people. But when my mother died, I grew suspicious of metaphor. Metaphor insisted: your mother might be the sea. I tried to imagine her as the sea. I tried to feel around in my soul for whether my mother could ever become the trees. But I couldn’t. Metaphor said: you are deficient, you have not found a place for her.

I could not imagine what form she might take partly because I had not settled for myself that she had “gone.” Even today, I sometimes hesitate at the verb. Occasionally the people who wanted to comfort me in grief seemed discomforted themselves. Their faces were tense, as if anticipating an unreturnable emotional volley. I tried to find an expression that felt honest and, at the same time, safe to use after a casual “what’s new?” There wasn’t one.

I remember once, when I was 12, trying to reckon with the idea that my mother would one day not be here. I promised myself that when the time came, I would say “dead,” because it was the true word. I understood “passed away” as a pretend phrase adults use when speaking to children and the infirm. Decades later, when I came back to claim the truth, I discovered that “died” is only a syllable from the slipstream, useful for emails to one’s employer, but otherwise featureless as a light switch.

Poetry felt drained of its possibilities by the time I stood graveside. My disorientation with language was complete as my mother’s coffin was being lowered into the ground and the rabbi read out her name: Elaine.

Elaine. Something seemed off to me about this. A mistake. Maybe even a lie. I don’t know why, but I was absolutely certain of one thing: That is not her name anymore. It was as if someone had whispered this message into my ear. It did not have to do with anything poems had said, or anything people were saying after the funeral, as we were spooning egg salad and potato salad into bowls. “Elaine is with Tom now,” someone told me. And “Elaine is in a better place.” Not Elaine, I thought to myself, as if it were an obvious error of fact that any proofreader would catch.

The next week, while going through my mother’s things, I found an old etiquette book. In the chapter on condolence, there was a drawing of a woman’s hands, narrow, graceful, cartoonish 1950s hands, holding a teacup. The grieving person, said the book, will forget to eat, but she may accept a cup of bouillon. Reading that, I felt, truly, like a pale gold light moved over me. I felt the weight I had been carrying ease just a bit. The etiquette book was not elegiac. It did not offer beauty, or a “message.” Its author spoke from a time when people thought about grief and knew what to do when it happened, a time when grief was an ordinary household condition. The grieving person, the etiquette book explained, is ill. The assessment was as flat and serene as a sickroom tray. This language had possibility. The etiquette book offered a calm voice, recognition, an assurance that I wasn’t falling through space.

Several months later, I was sitting in a theater watching Sarah Ruhl’s play Eurydice. After marrying Orpheus, Eurydice dies. In the underworld, there is a chorus of stones that addresses the audience.

Eurydice wants to speak to you.
But she can’t speak your language anymore.
She talks in the language of dead people now.

This was it. Further to the communiqué I had received at my mother’s grave, and to my problem with poetry while mourning.

The play said: elegies are false. They think they can talk to the dead, but dead people speak in the language of the dead, and we can’t.

Eurydice is about the playwright’s own bereavement. After dying and traveling to the underworld, Eurydice sees her father, but she does not recognize him. An ocean of sadness opened up in me as I watched. This play understood what the loss of a person means. I couldn’t speak to my mother not because I didn’t know where she was, and not because I had too little faith or imagination to envision where she was. I couldn’t speak to her because I could not recognize the Her she had become.

For me, the vital part of grieving was not to try to “resolve” or cross this distance. It was the distance. Eurydice led me back to poetry because it is not an elegy. It is about being left behind.

I began to think there could be a poem about death that was as large as this distance. Or that a poem about death might enact a failure of language that seemed to me the truest part of my mother’s absence.  

In the years since, I have found poems into which I can take my remnant grief. It took me a while to sense what kind of writing I could trust with it, because my relationship to poetry was shifting. Owing to my mother’s death, I had become uneasy with closure and impatient with poems that offer epiphanic “truths.” Poems of sorrow, especially, needed to do something else.

The ones that sustain me, I find, have to do with living people, humans who mourn, rather than with the departed. These poems are not “like” grieving—they are not lamentations—but instead open up the isolating process of mourning. They translate sorrow through poetic form rather than confining it to a metaphor. Here are a few of them.

 The narrator of Ai’s “Cuba, 1962” is a plantation hand who discovers his lover dead in the sugar cane. First he cuts off her feet with a machete—“what I take from the earth, I give back.” Then he takes her body to market with the crop.

Whoever tastes my woman in his candy, his cake,
tastes something sweeter than this sugar cane;  
it is grief.
If you eat too much of it, you want more,  
you can never get enough.

I couldn’t have imagined there was anything surprising to say about death. But this poem surprises me by rhyming grief with greed. It shows me a stage of mourning I passed through without realizing: punishing aboundingness. When my mother died, so many people brought cakes to the house, the soft, airy kind that always seem to be frosted a lip-staining blue. I ate and ate. The cakes made me sick, and they never satisfied. The person speaking in “Cuba, 1962” is a laborer, but the labor in the poem is sorrow. Sorrowing is work, and it does not satisfy. At the end of each day I did not know how far I had come or when I would be done. Grief was infinite, and yet no amount was enough.

“Cuba, 1962” feels true to me because the pain in it is not assuaged. The poem is brutal, and it is a love poem. It is almost a reproach of sympathy-verse. So often the “comfort” in grief poems seems like pretense. I feel easy around this poem; paradoxically, the way it forsakes comfort comforts me. It reminds me of the condolence card I got from my mother-in-law: Dear Joy, she wrote, Do you feel like you have a hole in your heart that nothing can fill? Her question held a mirror up to my pain. This twinning of grief was generosity itself, in the form of a question I was not obligated to answer. Do you feel this? Not death feels like _________.

Christina Davis, in her incantatory poem “Furthermore,” focuses on the body after the death of her father. I love the ancient sound of lines such as these:

[…] to have for a body

the going away of the body, to have for eyes
the going away of the eyes. And for hearing,

a silence, where once
were people.

What the poet has left of her father—what she gets to keep—is even less substantial than a memory. Her father has become an abstract process, the-going-away-of. And there is more transformation: the body is also the poet’s body. All she can see with her own eyes is the going away of his.

“Furthermore” is the opposite of poems that make the site of mourning an object, such as an ocean or a tree. In those poems, an image becomes a reliquary, a stand-in for a person who was once able to see it. Images can be objects of faith: a poem can make a tree more real than a real tree (to misquote Marianne Moore). But in this poem, I find the lack of image more faithful to experience.

In a way, “Furthermore” argues against the faith poems place in images. A passage in Psalms, echoing this poem, explains: “Eyes have they, but they see not; they have ears, but they hear not.” In the psalm, the Jews are being instructed to reject idols. Instead of worshiping gold effigies, they are supposed to rely on a God whose presence is abstract. A process. Not wind or vapor, but the fact that wind and vapor are created.

How to turn, in need and sorrow, to a process, where so recently there was a living body? In return for my mother, I had going-awayness and, after a while, having-goneness. Davis’s acceptance of this transformation, in “Furthermore,” strikes me as a strong act of faith.

Mary Szybist’s “On Wanting to Tell [         ] About a Girl Eating Fish Eyes” questions poetry’s faith in metaphor, even as it is full of metaphors. “On Wanting to Tell” is really about a helpless way of seeing that happens in grief. Death creates an intensity of perception that causes objects of the world to change:

You died just hours ago.
Not suddenly, no. You'd been dying so long  
nothing looked like itself: from your window,  
fishermen swirled sequins;  
fishnets entangled the moon.

“You’d been dying so long, nothing looked like itself.” In death’s slow approach, starlight became sequins. This is a romantic metaphor, spun of sweet sorrow. But “On Wanting to Tell” is not the kind of poem that turns starlight into sequins. It is not sweet, either. Death has come finally. Metaphor disappears.

Now the dark rain  
looks like dark rain. Only the wine  
shimmers with candlelight.

In mourning, it would have been a relief to find, even for a minute, that the world was just the world again, and nothing was “like” anything else. An ordinary minute in a universe where my mother wasn’t dead, and the rain was not charged with loss. But this moment, when the rain is simply the rain, is not a resolution. The world of this poem is not normal. We know this because in its first lines, before any mention of death, there is a little girl going around eating eyes.

—how her loose curls float
above each silver fish as she leans in
to pluck its eyes—

Is a girl actually going around the room and pulling eyes out of fish and eating them? Is “eating eyes” a metaphor? It is unclear. All we can tell for sure is that the speaker of the poem is at a dinner party where she turned from an ordinary wine-drinking person into a person-who-is-still-alive. It is a very, very odd moment. She speaks to the dead person, but wishfully, not with any investment in communicating:

If only I could go to you, revive you.
You must be a little alive still.

At the end of the poem, the girl who has been helping herself, apparently from platters of eyes, is asked what they taste like. She responds: “They taste like eyes.” Metaphor declined—no explanation, no truth revealed, no diversion from the weirdness.

Szybist’s voice throughout the poem is pacific, hypnotic. And there is tenderness (awful tenderness) in the description of the girl slipping eyes into her mouth with “soft,” “rosy,” chewed fingers. The creepy girl hovers in the uncomfortable place between metaphor and reality as the poem wonders about the border between still-alive and no-longer-alive.

Ted Berrigan’s poem “People Who Died” does not want to set me up for philosophical understanding. It does not have flashy chops. It moves obviously, deliberately, like someone laying down a weapon in surrender. The poem, as the title announces, is simply a list.

     Pat Dugan……..my grandfather……..throat cancer……..1947.

     Ed Berrigan……..my dad……..heart attack……..1958.

The people who died are Berrigan’s family and friends. The recitation is chronological, so it intermingles the legendary and the obscure:

     Woody Guthrie……dead of Huntington’s Chorea in 1968.

     Neal……Neal Cassady……died of exposure, sleeping all night
                                            in the rain by the RR tracks of Mexico….1969.

     Franny Winston……just a girl….totalled her car on the Detroit-Ann Arbor
                                    Freeway, returning from the dentist….Sept. 1969.

    Jack……Jack Kerouac……died of drink & angry sickness….in 1969.

It’s not that the poem refuses to confront death’s mystery or that the experience of grief is missing from “People Who Died.” Quite the opposite. Grief is in the poem’s form. It is in how Berrigan trips up, interrupting his list, pausing and then continuing, as though snapping out of a reverie. “Jack……Jack Kerouac.” In the hesitation, I feel a tension. The poem doesn’t tell me how to interpret this pang—I am free to take it as sadness, or as an emotional double-take. The ellipsis could be a crack, just a flash of the infinite territory of sorrow. The details of their relationship aren’t important. The epic of Kerouac’s life could have crushed this poem. “Drink & angry sickness” compresses a life into a teaspoon of radioactive material. It satisfies the part of me that wanted adults to tell it straight.

The poem closes: My friends whose deaths have slowed my heart stay with me now. The pitch of the last line is not so different from the rest of the poem. It is a gesture of acceptance, not a reach for the lyrical sublime. It is a low-key observation.

Whose deaths have slowed my heart describes the cadence of this poem, calm as a resting heartbeat, or a train on a long nighttime stretch. My friends stay with me now limits the poem to saying something about Berrigan. “People Who Died” makes no pronouncement about my relationship with my own people who died. But because the poem is so modest, I feel invited into its ongoingness, the train that carries all the dead and the living.

  • Joy Katz is the author, most recently, of All You Do is Perceive, a Stalecher Selection at Four Way Books and a National Poetry Series finalist. Her other collections are The Garden Room (Tupelo) and Fabulae (Southern Illinois). Her honors include an NEA fellowship, a Stegner fellowship, and a Pushcart...

Essay

Left Behind

Can poetry comfort the grieving?
  • Joy Katz is the author, most recently, of All You Do is Perceive, a Stalecher Selection at Four Way Books and a National Poetry Series finalist. Her other collections are The Garden Room (Tupelo) and Fabulae (Southern Illinois). Her honors include an NEA fellowship, a Stegner fellowship, and a Pushcart...

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