In her first collection for adults, renowned children's author Jane Yolen limns her experience with loss in straightforward and clear lyrics. The poems' simplicity makes them all the more poignant; she depicts her experience, including the mundane tasks following a death (packing up clothes, buying a headstone) plainly, unobstructed by wordplay. Though it contains nothing new or surprising about the grieving process, the book is finely wrought.
She writes of her husband's absence: "[It] breaks me open every morning, / splitting me like a well-placed wedge." But the poems are restrained and well crafted. Sadness rendered beautiful: "The hem of my heart wears the same frost."
The rare raw moments are mostly in the poems about her husband's final days. They spare none of the grim details of caring for a cancer patient. "The Good Wife," which mentions cleaning her husband's rear, emptying the bedpan, and purchasing Tucks, also reveals her own bitterness:
"No, the good wife does it all alone,
Then lies down on the pyre
Next to her dearly beloved
And goes up with him in a pure blaze to heaven."
She writes about her wild desperate attempts to get her husband to eat and offers the startling image of "Cancer like some tin-hat dictator/ Forbidding you your life."
Buried in these chronicles of the body failing are tender love poems to the man she spent 46 years of her life with (44 as a married couple). Her husband was a birdcall expert, and images of birds are plentiful and touching:
"One cannot own this man
any more than one can own a wild bird
that places its allegiance
to wind and sky and sometimes,
to a single mate."
She also deploys humor well to show the speaker's exasperation with platitudes friends offer to quell her sadness. When her friend sends her the Chinese proverb, "If I keep a green bough in my heart, the singing bird will come," Yolen responds, "Hell, if it works, I will rototill the ventricle."
At first the twin poems "Things to Say to a Dying Man" and "Things to Say to a Grieving Woman" seem to be on the same theme on how words fail in the face of suffering. In both, the seemingly hollow phrase "It's all right" is repeated.
However, through the book the reader discovers that it is all right; all right to mourn, all right to be angry, to laugh, and finally to find beauty within loss.
Elizabeth Hoover is a poet and freelance writer. You can see more of her work at www.ehooverink.com.