“I wouldn’t have been sure of my answer”

During the last week of my mother’s life, I took a steno pad from one of her many stashes of office supplies and started filling it with notes and with the beginning drafts of poems, one which was published a few months later, and others which I will tear apart some other year and use to seed other poems. Perhaps. There’s a legal pad somewhere in my basement with the start of a poem I’d felt compelled to draft maybe nine or ten years ago, knowing I wasn’t going to get very far with it because I would not feel okay about publishing it while my mother was alive, and back then I expected her to live into her nineties (her mother did). There have been poems I’ve written since last spring (“A Stack of Cards” and “Missing Characters“).

(That sentence I just wrote feels so incomplete, but I lack the words to end it properly or definitively. And yes, that could be an analogy to grief.)

So: this entry is to point you to three other poets whose lines about death have recently caught my attention. First, today’s edition of Poetry Daily featured two poems by Jason Shinder, an American poet who died of cancer last year at the age of 52 or 53. The poems are bleakly beautiful (and the subject line of this post comes from “The Good Son”). The Wikipedia entry is startling: it includes a passage that is very unWiki in tone, but strikes me as written in exasperated sorrow.

He was careless with his medication; he was perpetually late to treatment; in the hours before chemotherapy, he could be found ice-skating with a date who didn’t know he was sick.

“We were all maddened by his denial about his illness,” his friend the poet Marie Howe says, “but when we read the poems and his journals after his death, we saw that he had been addressing it in a way he could never say in life.

Second, in a blog entry from earlier this year, Neil Aitken (whose Boxcar Poetry Review has published work by Mary, Jeannine, and me) quotes an interview in which he discusses his preoccupation with themes of exile

merging with the growing realization that my father was dying and that our time together would be very short. I wanted desperately to finish the book for him while he was still alive, and yet even as I was writing and revising, I was gradually sensing the book would not be done in time, and further that there would be poems that could not be written until I had dealt with his impending death.

Third, I’ve been dipping into Laurel Snyder‘s The Myth of the Simple Machines during breaks, and oh, there’s a poem in there called “The Truth,” about her and her grandmother:

…She was
horrible, my grandmother,
and that’s the truth, though
my uncle pretended. “She

was a good old girl, just
the dog done lost her bite.”
But no. “But no she

never did,” we told him.
If only she had.

And this, this

“I love you,” I said to her as she died.

“Yes, but you love lots of people,”
she growled back faintly.
“Not enough,” I should’ve told
her then, “nowhere near.”