Discussion Guide

The Art of Losing

Past and Presence in the July/August 2013 Poetry.

A series of essays in the July/August 2013 issue of Poetry measures the aftershocks of death. Clare Cavanagh, who translates the work of Wislawa Szymborska, imagines that a trick of grammar—the use of present tense rather than past—might resurrect the beloved Polish poet. Bianca Stone describes shuddering each time she came upon an obituary for her grandmother, the poet Ruth Stone: "it felt too final." For both writers, language seems a matter of life or death, capable of insisting on the demise of a loved one or of hinting that she somehow survives.

Several poems in this issue support the latter point, suggesting the immortality of mortals. Phillis Levin's musical, melancholy "Lenten Song" begins:

That the dead are real to us
Cannot be denied,
That the living are more real

When they are dead
Terrifies, that the dead can rise
As the living do is possible

Is possible to surmise....

This "Lenten Song" alludes to the traditions of Easter: just as Jesus rose from the dead, so do ordinary people survive their ends. What might Levin mean by claiming that the living are more real when they are dead? When we reconstruct loved ones through memory, do we lend them new vitality? Do we miss the dead so passionately that they become more immediate to us than when we could take their presence for granted? Memory is important to the poem's form, too. This "song"—"a music without notes," to quote a later line—is filled with rhymes and repetitions designed to linger in our minds: "real"/"real," "dead"/"dead," "possible"/"possible," "terrifies"/"rise"/"surmise."

Levin's poem about the transformations that follow death plays with the concept of change: "I turn to words / Only to say he changes // Into his robe," she writes. The first line suggests the speaker is turning into words, transmuting into language—but the next assures us that she is merely using language to express herself. Yet that line ends "he changes," performing a similar rhetorical trick: for a second, we think the speaker's companion is becoming something new, only to learn that he's merely putting on his robe. As we progress through this selection, words themselves change meaning.

The themes of Seán Hewitt's "Ancestry" are closely related to those of "Lenten Song." Hewitt's poem examines the decay of people and buildings, describing a deteriorating house in human terms: "the room's wet belly had begun to bow," "the crumbling wood / gone to seed, all its muscles wasted." An unidentified "you" degenerates similarly, "eighty years shaking on a plastic tray." The poem concludes with a hauntingly surreal image: the speaker and his companions rip up the floorboards and slip "under the floor. We moved down there like fish / in moonlight, or divers round an old ship." Like "Lenten Song," this poem mixes life and death, though if Levin imagines people rising after death, Hewitt hints at self-burial during life. (He alludes, too, to the expression "sleeping with the fishes," partly through shipwreck imagery.) Hewitt also suggests, as Levin does, that new life follows death: one might turn into something rich and strange, a fish or a diver or another creature entirely.

In "The King and Seer," another study of the transformations that accompany loss, Emily Warn turns people into trees:

Trees are always missing some leaves.
They sweep the air looking for them. Nothing distracts them. Nothing.
Where leaves are missing between the branches, beautiful sun porches,
which disappear when the tree reaches them.

"Nothing distracts them," Warn writes, punning on "nothing": it is indeed nothingness, the absence of leaves, that inspires these trees to sweep the air. In Dante's Inferno and elsewhere, dead leaves symbolize human souls, so this image suggests the loss of loved ones—and yet, since the trees are lacking parts of themselves, the image functions as self-elegy as well.

For Warn, as for Levin and Hewitt, loss can occasion beautiful new things: sun porches, places for light to gather. But before long those vanish, too, destroyed by the grieving tree.

By imagining that the dead can rise and that new creation follows decay, these poems argue with time. James Longenbach's "Allegory" processes grief by ceasing time entirely. The poem's addressee scatters seeds of wheat that billow around him like a cloud:

Inside the cloud, time no longer exists.
Your back’s not bent, your body is a boy’s.

Outside, since it’s time for wheat, the summer rains are finished.
Otherwise it’s oats. Every third year it’s clover.
You’re tired of walking, of sowing, tired of being in love.

In this fantasy of suspended time, the addressee briefly escapes the ravages of the years; his bent back straightens, and he reverts from man to child. Meanwhile, outside the cloud, the schedule of the harvest beats on: wheat, rain, oats, clover.

At the poem's conclusion, the man plants "hundreds, then thousands / Of seedlings, conifers. . . ./You make the field disappear." Is this image familiar? The first section of the poem described the speaker's grandfather planting the trees; "the forest once / had been a field." Moving forward through the poem, we move backward through the generations, from the time of the speaker to the time of his grandfather. It's as though "time no longer exists," as though no one has to die or evolve at all. And yet we must progress through time simply to read the poem. Do all poems that absorb our attention serve as "golden clouds" where the minutes seem to stop, even as the poems unfurl in time? Is it this quality that suits poetry so well to elegy, which, as we have seen, at once denies and describes change?

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