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 fourth installment, poet Paul Tran reflects on “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden

My father left me at a KFC when I was seven and never returned. A soldier and refugee from South Vietnam, he loved my mother and me as much as he psychologically manipulated and physically abused us. For every clear memory I have of him teaching me to play badminton or singing to me as we delivered the local Vietnamese newspaper before dawn, there are unclear memories: his hands, the dark of his garage across the street from Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, ash from wildfires licking the hills clean of chaparral, slowly descending like unaware angels from the Southern California sky. Even now, decades later and thousands of miles away from that violence, my hands tremble typing this.

The elusive and everlasting nature of violence, and its ensuing grief, makes writing toward the truth of difficult experiences more difficult, especially when the people or institutions involved still hold power over my life. When I require courage to speak truth to power, to tear the veil separating me and that which grief conceals from me, I recite like a prayer “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden. 

The poem and Hayden himself taught me three things about writing from and through grief: First, I can withhold information about my life that I do not want to or am unable to share. Rather than describing the violence they witnessed, the speaker deploys the abstraction “chronic angers,” forcing the reader to imagine what that violence could be. Whether because it is too painful to recount, or because the speaker is too afraid to recount it, the violence as an abstraction becomes increasingly devastating in a poem consisting of concrete details until that moment. Second, I can use form to communicate information I do not want to or am unable to share. In the penultimate sentence, which demands attention as the longest sentence and the only one broken across two stanzas right where the volta occurs in a sonnet, the speaker hides the information about “fearing the chronic angers of that house,” and their “indifferent” response to it, in between information about how the father would call “when the rooms were warm” and polish, ostensibly for church, their “good shoes as well.” That syntactic structure resembles the rhetorical figure of chiasmus, which signals entrapment, and the compliment sandwich that survivors often use to talk about their abusers, to rationalize the abuse or simply to signal its presence indirectly. Finally, I can use lyric ambiguity to insinuate information I do not want to and am unable to share. While the figure of “love’s austere and lonely offices” represents the speaker understanding their father as neither good nor bad, but as capable as everyone is of being both at once, it also represents the agony, ultimately, of loving someone who cannot reciprocate or who does not know what love really is. Lyric ambiguity allows for both the redemptive and condemning interpretation to be true.

Tearing the veil separating me and that which grief conceals from me, I find knowledge, and knowledge is the ambition of my poetry. In this new light, perhaps my hands are trembling not because of what others will say. My hands tremble because of what I am about to say.