There are surprisingly few poetry collections built around the experience of loss. One of them, published just last year, is Time of Grief: Mourning Poems, selected by poet and New Directions editor Jeffrey Yang. It was inspired by a friend who lost her husband to a heart attack and searched, in vain, for a book accompany her process. Another collection, The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, came out in 2010; Kevin Young, the editor and a poet himself, could not find any anthologies on the subject.
This is surprising because the medium is doubly suited to grief. Like poetry, the experience of grief is universal; it crosses eras and cultures. Like poems, the experience of grief is unique in every form it takes.
When we are in grief we want company. Poems are not the same as loved ones, but they can give that sense of shared experience we crave. No one in mourning wants to be told that things will be “OK”; we want to know that others know our suffering.
Time of Grief: Mourning Poems is built to fulfill that need. Yang selects broadly, from Tomas Tranströmer to Sophokles to Rihaku (Li Po) to Octavio Paz. The collection is broken into 49 “Days,” one to three poems for each day, a reference to the Buddhist practice of grieving. Its small size and sparse design give it the feel of a prayer or meditation book, something to be carried and used.
In pulling together poems from vastly different contexts, Yang crafts a sort of meta-poem, a singular reading arc. There are thematic threads throughout, and the cycle closes with expressions of escaping grief. But he also means for the reader to “slowly read, re-read, and dwell upon,” to revisit poems at the right moments.
Many try to convey the time and space of grief, the process of living in and with it. Paz creates a nightmarish world around the speaker in his “Interrupted Elegy.” The refrain “Today I remember the dead in my house” repeats as he describes scenes of loss:
The woman who died night after night
and her dying was a long goodbye,
a train that never left.
Or Nathaniel Tarn, whose poem begins with his grief as structure and body:
Sadness, they say my home, sadness,
what is the sadness say my life my living,
a diagram of death inside transparent flesh,
bonework jutting out right and left from the spine,
building that prison-house from which no one emerges;
The book is necessarily free of sentimentality and shallow optimism. The process of mourning was never helped by being glossed over. But there are also moments of being at peace with grief, or of overcoming it. A plain, refreshing line comes from the speaker in Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s “Slow Down, Now”; in the midst of soaking in the nature around her, she states: “I accept that I’ve aged and some friends have died.”
And sentimentality denies a hard truth: poetry itself is incapable of conquering grief, of transmuting it into something concrete to then be dissected. Song dynasty poet Li Ch’ing-chao puts it simply in “On Plum Blossoms”:
I have no words for my weary sorrow, / No fine poetic thoughts.
Christina Rossetti, writing 800 years later and in a different language, comes to a similar place in “A Better Resurrection”:
I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My hear within me like a stone
Is numbed too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
To “find the right words,” a phrase always applied to approaching those in mourning, is of course the entire project of poetry. It’s tempting to trout out a cliché on art’s approximation of experience, on poetry circling but not forging meaning. But in truth, no friend or family member or lover has ever “found the right words.” The best they can do is to be present. These poets are not being ironic when they write that grief is unspeakable; they are crafting companions, presences to be apart from but with us in grief.
Time of Grief: Mourning Poems by poet Jeffrey Yang (New Directions, 2013) is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.
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