As part of the Poetry Coalition’s programming, the Academy of American Poets asked five renowned poets to reflect on poems that helped them better understand or process grief.
The seventh annual programming initiative’s theme “and so much lost you’d think / beauty had left a lesson: Poetry & Grief,” is from the poem “once the magnolia has blossomed” by Ed Roberson.
In the second installment, poet Diana Khoi Nguyen reflects on “That This” by Susan Howe.
Before I became intimate with grief in the wake and years after my brother’s death, I attended a reading by Susan Howe. Previously unaware of Howe’s work, I was immediately entranced by her reading from That This, even when I could no longer make out the words she was uttering (she read from the book’s textual sculptures); all of a sudden, there I was, sobbing in my seat, overcome by the fissure, fission, and fusion of her work, and the grief encoded in it. Since then, I have come to treasure that book, and in particular, this poem evokes the continuation and separation that are entwined in the experience of surviving the death of a loved one. The couplets, like animals to an ark, resist a singular loneliness, charting a steady gait forward: one foot before the other, and so on. New sentences begin and none officially end; the poem unfurls several tributaries of thought, flowing into and alongside convergent rivers. Chief in the rumination of this poem is the wrestling of presence and absence, day and its “anti-type,” a thing and not its opposite, but what it opposes, what it is up against. Howe’s grief captures the “harmonic collision” that “non-beings” cannot be likened to or embodied via metaphor. Those no longer here are “Not spirit not space finite / Not infinite to those fixed,” those living—we who are alive are on one side of the “millstone,” the dead on the other, and so it goes, this biological luck of being alive, rooted in the ongoingness of the present. When my brother died, I became a “solitary person” who “bears / witness to law in the ark,” this singular notion that life persists, that a day “is”—