(A couple of years ago, an ambitious and talented student writer burst into my office one afternoon in exasperation and despair, plopped down on my couch, and asked me if I ever felt like I might never write again. Not anything—not another poem, email, list, or post. As it happens, I had just been thinking about just such a time.)
Eight and a half years ago, the first ambitious task I undertook after I moved from Washington, D.C., to my North Carolina apartment was to write letters to family and friends who’d been so helpful during my wife Emily’s illness and death. It took me six months. Toward the end of this undertaking, I hired a young woman to look after Langston, my then six-month-old, for two mornings a week. I selected stationary of hummingbirds and dragonflies. I tried my best to write neatly. I sat in the same antique swivel writing chair in which I sit now, a graduation gift from Emily’s parents, and made and checked my list twice, though I’m sure I left people out.
Part of the reason I wrote these letters was because of Emily’s minor but persistent fear that she hadn’t sent thank-you notes to everyone who’d given us wedding gifts. We’d divided the responsibility along family lines, but then we moved and, three months later, moved again. Somewhere along the way, the list had been lost. Even after ten years of marriage, she’d felt mortified when she thought about it. So, in the first six months after her death, I wrote and mailed eighty or so letters. The job seemed beyond me, though I went at it dutifully.
Three and a half years later, after yet another move, one of my new colleagues at Delta State University told me the story of a young woman who suddenly dropped his Shakespeare class late in the semester. She was smart and capable, and had engaged honestly in the course, and my colleague was fond of her. Why? he asked. Why must you quit now? Your grades have been exemplary. She told him she had gotten married that summer and now had over five hundred thank-you notes to write—Shakespeare had to go. Decades later, the situation still exasperated him, and my sympathy for her surprised him.
The business of grief is pure prose. Give this poor subject a verb, keep it busy. Or get it going again, so it might progress along its sentence. Poetry was lost to me. Its concentration, its formalities rebuffed and appalled. I wanted straight report, and people obliged me. In the first year after Emily’s death, I received dozens of books on grief and mourning. I couldn’t read them all, but kept them anyway. Even now, I’ll come upon one while scanning a shelf and my mind will snap back to the time I received it. Time travel of a sort: for an instant, I am completely there, returning to the smells, discomforts, and the old tugging hollowness in my belly of those moments. This gravity of grief still pulls at me, as if I might swallow myself.
The body of contemporary English language literature on mourning seemed to me then impressively large, and I still lack the heart to delve into why we are drawn so enthusiastically to these litanies of bereavement, to grief and its eventual, necessary sublimation. I wondered why I hadn’t really noticed them before, these long, lonely cries of anguish.
Unsurprisingly, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking was among the first books I received. I wanted to like the book, to need it, but individual words and phrases kept getting in the way: Corvette, New York, Richard Carroll in Beverly Hills, Brooks Brothers shorts, Quintana was at Barnard, Forty years, December 30. Why should their wealth and length of time together matter? Grief is grief, but I envied her the years, the certainty of her vocation, the seemingly gentle existence. I envied her the adulthood of her child. Emily had died on the first of December, two and a half months shy of her thirty-seventh birthday, when our oldest child was five and a half years, our youngest five months old. I even envied Didion those twenty-nine days of December. It didn’t matter that on December 30, 2004, when Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, suffered a fatal heart attack as they sat down to supper, Emily and I had celebrated our daughter Virginia’s third Christmas in our two-bedroom 1908 bungalow, whose disproportionately large hall and high ceilings made a perfect court for the Nerf basketball hoop our daughter received as a gift. I felt like being unfair, being cruel. Privilege, privilege, privilege, privilege, echoed in my head, like some lost line of Lear. I raged that Emily was denied the satisfaction of a full working life, the anxiety and pleasure of watching her daughter and son reach out for their own adulthoods.
And I put the book down.
The passage above is an excerpt from And There Was Evening and There Was Morning—Essays on Illness, Loss, and Love, forthcoming in September from WTAW PRESS. A “first look” chapbook from the memoir is available here.
A native of Philippi, West Virginia, Mike Smith is a graduate of UNC-G, Hollins College, and the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of And There Was Evening and There Was Morning, a collection of essays forthcoming from WTAW Press in September. Mike Smith has published three collections of poetry, including Multiverse, a collection of two anagrammatic cycles. His translation of the first part of Goethe’s Faust was published by Shearsman Books in 2012, and he is co-editor of the anthology, The Mint’s Invitation: Contemporary Chinese Short-Shorts in Translation, forthcoming from Columbia University Press in August. Together with software engineer Brandon Nelson, Mike created and curates The Zombie Poetry Project at zombiepoetryproject.com.
BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month
The theme of teaching and learning poetry, and our emphasis on student poets, speaks directly to the action of poetry in our country and global community. Never has the education of our students been so threatened, and never has truth been more challenged than in the current political climate. The truth emerges through education and the resistance and questions of our youngest generation, and it is their lead we absolutely must follow if they are to live in a society that fosters their achievements, liberation, and justice. Truth emerges through poetry as well — poetry bears witness to what truths seem impossible to speak any other way. Its constraints limit the temptation to misconstrue, obscure, and bury.