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Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2016  Vol. 15 No. 1
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Little Monuments
in swale and swamp and sworn
to water
—Lorine Niedecker, “Paean to Place”

Elegizing is a business of precision. You want to describe what it felt like, perfectly: What I loved is missing. This is the exact shape of what, for me, is absent.

It was the only house. It was surrounded by swamp-woods and cemeteries. My parents planted all the trees in the front yard. To drive there now, anyone can see the hole—empty grass, few trees, just a wide space for an acre of graves. Anyone can drive through my childhood bedroom on a paved gray circular drive.

We had to give up the house when I was twelve. So many people had moved into the town that the house had to be torn down to expand the cemetery. The dead finally encroaching—what a coup.

Just before that, the year I turned eleven, I lost one person after another, so many people that I began to feel superstitious about it. A suicide, a horrific triple murder. Brain cancer. I was burying what I loved all the time. It was the first year that I really feared and dreaded the cemetery, the first year I thought, “When the ground freezes, bodies freeze in it.” Years later, I read T.S. Eliot: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout?”

You are expected to mourn in a circle. This I know from spending my childhood observing other people’s grief rituals. You show up, you put flowers on the grave, you stand there hating everything, waiting to be freshly stung—for that sharpness to come on and do what it will do to you—and then you drive your car around the circle and leave.

And isn’t that also true of writing poetry? You don’t arrive at life-illuminating clarity; you engage in prolonged, frustrated shifting. You show up to your grief. You learn how to give order to something that, necessarily, has to exist outside of order. You consider all the ways in which your life has deviated from a pattern you set, and then you circle, closing in, making new patterns for yourself—in language.

Most of my poems are about the anxiety of departure. They depict a speaker who is leaving or has been left behind, often at high velocity, against her will. Returning obsessively to that same loss, that same history of the landscape, is to engage in a poetics of circling back. I always return to the space where the house was. I know what’s there—what isn’t. But I’m interested in the way that repeating your own history back to yourself can create a doubled grief or trauma that feels—somehow—contained, ordered, separate.

That’s one way I know how to work through it. The house is gone, but there are all these little monuments in its place.  

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