Saturday, April 6, 2013

Book Club

I have a new little book club with some friends from work.  We'd been meeting for monthly happy hours and we decided that we should push ourselves to read things that weren't necessarily related to teaching or academia.  Books had to be not too long and not too taxing in order to qualify, but we also wanted them to be good.  We decided to start with poetry, and I'd vaguely remembered hearing something on NPR about a poet whose work I wanted to read.  Thanks to a note I'd made in my phone, we decided to start with Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard.

I knew she was the poet laureate and the book was about the Civil War, and that's really all I knew (I must have just caught the tail-end of the NPR story).

Really, the book is a meditation on grief, and her mother's sudden and violent death.  It's also about growing up in the South as a child of a racially mixed marriage, about the history of the Civil War, and the way that history gets retold and shapes our lives today.  Her poems are poignant and lovely, but they are also masterful in a formal sense.  I was glad to be reading them with other literary nerds who pointed out meter and rhyme schemes that enriched my appreciation for Trethewey's talent.

My favorite poem in the entire collection is one called "Myth":

I was asleep while you were dying.
It's as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow
I make between my slumber and waking,

the Erebus I keep you in, still trying 
not to let go.  You'll be dead again tomorrow,
but in dreams you live.  So I try taking

you back into morning.  Sleep-heavy, turning,
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
Again and again, this constant forsaking.

Again and again, this constant forsaking:
my eyes open, I find you do not follow,
You back into morning, sleep-heavy, turning.

But in dreams you live.  So I try taking,
not to let go.  You'll be dead again tomorrow.
The Erebus I keep you in -- still, trying --

I make between my slumber and my waking.
It's as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow.
I was asleep while you were dying.

As you may have noticed, the whole poem is a palindrome.  A brilliant one, in my opinion.  One of my friends said that it was only on the second reading that she realized the poem was a mirror image of itself.  I love that it is so emotionally loaded and yet so carefully and perfectly crafted.  (My blog is basically the polar opposite of that--more like emotional vomit at times.  Just keeping it real.  It is worth noting, though, that Trethewey herself comments on the fact that these poems were written many years after her mother's death, that she couldn't write about it when her grief was fresh.  So you know, maybe in ten years my prose will be carefully crafted? Don't hold your breath.)

I love how the forsaking that happens in the first half is different than the second half--when the lines switch around, there is a shift in who and what is being forsaken.  The speaker is at first forsaken by the dead not following her, but then it's as though her own consciousness forsakes her by opening her eyes each day and leaving that memory or that dream behind.

And the opening and closing lines:  "I was asleep while you were dying."  Forget the literal meaning of it--it perfectly captures the guilt that corresponds with grief.  I was asleep, distracted, oblivious while you slipped away from me.  How many times have I asked David, "How could I not have known?"  I can't even begin to say.

I had to look up the word "Erebus" -- it's the personification of darkness in Greek mythology, and is often related to the underworld where the souls of the dead reside.

I also think it's brilliant way the "still trying" of the first half becomes "still, trying" in the second half--that comma makes all the difference in the world and changes the meaning from an ongoing effort to a stillness that is part of the effort to capture what's gone. The word "still" is of course one that resonates with me.  Stillborn.  Still born.  Still as in silent.  Still as in dead.  Still as in unmoving, refusing to go forward, willing oneself back in time.  Still as in enduring nonetheless.

But I think the line that best captures my experience of grief is: "You'll be dead again tomorrow."

Because that's exactly what it feels like--not a continuation, but a repetition.  Not "You'll continue to be dead tomorrow" but "You'll be dead again tomorrow."  Like a groundhog day reality that I have to face over and over and over again.  Tomorrow, I have to wake up again.  And you'll be dead again.  And I'll have that moment of consciousness when the sleep falls away and the realization hits me: My baby died.  And the next day: My baby died.  And the next day: My baby died.  Again.  Again and again and again.  Everyday for the rest of my life I have to wake up and remember that my baby died.  When you think about it that way, it's truly a wonder any of us survives this.  It is the reason why we can only stare in disbelief at people who wonder aloud why we're not "over it" yet.  And it certainly explains why I cried every single day for an entire year.  Because every single day, my baby was dead.  Again.

In discussing this poem, and others in her collection, my book club ended up talking a lot about grief, and sharing personal stories that book clubs might not normally discuss.  We ate cheese and drank wine and celebrated a birthday and laughed a lot, but we also talked about death and grief and getting older and loss and some of us cried (me included).

It was one of those times I realized that sharing the stories we're afraid to tell can connect us with people on a deeper level.  I haven't lost a parent, but I have a perspective on grief that I can offer to someone who's coping with that loss.  I haven't had a miscarriage, but I can easily imagine the pain of having those precious hopes dashed so early.  I'm no longer afraid of other people's grief.  The truth is that it can still make me uncomfortable.  I'm getting pretty good at pretending to be okay, so someone else falling apart can leave me feeling taken aback and unsure of myself.  But I know how important it is not to hide behind a wall of platitudes and subject-changes.  I don't always handle grief (my own or other people's) as gracefully as I'd like to (and I definitely can't articulate it the way Trethewey can) but at least I'm not afraid to face it head on.


  1. My baby dies every day. Exactly. I relive it, and he's still gone and it's still heartbreaking. And I'm not over it.

  2. Andrew dies everyday for me, too.

    Also, every time the word still is spoken from my mouth (just yesterday), I quickly recant. It's a term I associate so heavily with my grief, and the obvious reality of my stillborn son.

    What a fantastic book club so far. Please write about each book. I might crack open a bottle of wine and read and cry with you all.

  3. Still is a very loaded word isn't it?

    And ditto what Brandy said about wanting to read and cry along with you.

  4. Such a lovely sad work of art. Words can be so moving.

    And that is how it is, I will wake up tomorrow and he will still be dead. Still and dead two small words that mean so very much.

    Sounds like book club will be good therapy.

  5. You've got some phenomenal strength there, friend. I hope that I can find strength like that when I need it.

  6. Today I was lying awake in the early morning thinking, I can't believe he is gone. Five years out, and it keeps happening. I love that poem - the clever structure of it and the way the structure supports and adds to the meaning instead of just being there for cleverness' sake. Thanks so much for sharing it here.

  7. Wonderful poem! Thanks for sharing. Indeed by first born dies every single day while I live! After quite many days I revisited the minute by minute playback of my Cutu's passing away and the tragic turn of events. I agree when u say, you can handle others grief better.A friend of mine is facing some marital issues since a coupleof years now. I remember not wanting to accept that she has issues that could lead to a break up; because she is a close friend and I never wanted to see her hurt. But, of late, after loosing Cutu, I am able to see grief/sorrow in the eye and feel the pain, without wishing it away. I understand that things do not always happen for a good reason and if something bad happens to someone, it is always not bad karma.

  8. Oh my God. Yes! This is it exactly. Thank you for Shari g (and breaking it down for those of us like me where poetry goes soaring over my head). Loved it all. So want to join your book club!

  9. This made me cry. Beautiful words. Thank you.

  10. What an incredible poem. Thank you so much for sharing. Your reflection made me cry, in recognition of that daily waking and my baby dying again. I don't think those who aren't grieving understand the weight of this. Thank you for putting it in such moving words. And thank you for your strength facing other people's grief (and your own?) head-on. It is inspiring.