At the local library you’re most likely to find me leafing through the new cookbooks or reading up on the latest techniques for the small farmer. (Please note: my local library is in the middle of the suburbs.) Not far from these forms of escapism rest the recently published books of poetry; and you can often find me there as well, squatting uncomfortably to see what might be hidden from the eyes of more casual browsers on the bottom shelf.
This summer I lifted The Art of Losing, Poems of Grief and Healing from that nearly-hidden row of books and perused the list of contributors. National Book Award finalist Kevin Young has pulled together an impressive list of poets, and included their best words on grief and healing. Names like Anne Sexton, Jane Kenyon, e.e. cummings, Galway Kinnell, William Matthews, Mary Oliver, and Billy Collins line the table of contents: poets whose words have spoken to me through the years in simple and profound ways. Their names alone made the decision to add the book to my pile of library picks that week.
What I discovered inside the book, though, went beyond my hopes. Not only was the poetry included accessible and striking, it was full of details that made the individual experiences described more universally applicable. This book of poetry gets to the heart of people’s grief in ways that are personal in the best sense; its contributors aren’t trying to talk about grief or hope or remembrance or ritual for the whole world, but rather share glimpses of intimate moments that come to speak words the rest of us cannot. My father is alive and well but I felt the foreshadowing of inevitable loss when reading “My father spent his last winter/Making ice grips for shoes,” the opening lines of Mary Oliver’s “Ice.”
Young has divided this collection into six sections; the poems move from Reckoning, Regret and Remembrance, through Ritual, to Recovery and Redemption. Some titles alone made me catch my breath: “Written on the Due Date of a Son Never Born,” “For a Woman Dead at Thirty,” “Not Forgotten,” “Stillbirth.” We do not often have words for these griefs, and more rarely do we find words that dwell in the experience of grief instead of spouting platitudes. Other poems pulled me into their short-lined stories: “It’s 2 a.m. and I can’t remember/ the last name of my friend Joy/ who died of breast cancer.” “Grandma, come back, I forgot/How much lard for these rolls.”
The poems in later sections do not speak of a world that denies death, but instead of an existence that acknowledges the death or loss and visions a new, different reality. Ted Kooser writes in “Father” that “Well, today/lilacs are blooming in side yards/all over Iowa, still welcoming you.”
I have three tall bookcases in my office, and like many pastors, wish I had more; I can’t seem to resist a bookstore. And yet there are times when I search the shelves and come up empty for a recommendation or accessible resource, particularly when it comes to grief. It’s not that I underestimate folks; however, I don’t think that my pastoral care technique textbooks are what people are looking for in the midst of their grief.
I never expected to write so enthusiastically about a collection that focuses on the grief process. Of course not every poem moved me in the same way. A few of them are a bit too obscure in their images, and others didn’t have an entry point to the story that I could find. For me, though, that’s part of the beauty of having all of the different voices in one place. And, just as grief differs for each of us, so too does our connection with words. However, this is a rich anthology whether you read poetry for personal devotion or with an eye for worship planning, or both.
This book became one I didn’t want to return, a book that I wanted in multiples: one for the bedside table and the office and the car (you know, in the back seat right next to the book of pastoral care rites and my communion kit) and a stack to put in the hands of parishioners. I have only ordered one (so far), but nearly every day I think of someone else who should have a copy.
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