A chorus of breaths: on poetry, grief, and grace

For the better part of a year, I’ve been sharing essays and poems about poetry’s prismatic capacities to cast light on how humans live in a dominant culture depleted of deep meaning. I’ve shared how poetry connects us in time and space to historic events like the Pulse nightclub shootings, the presidential elections, and the women’s marches, alongside my personal experiences of travel, poetry readings, love, grief, and grace.

This essay is no different. It isn’t an obituary. It isn’t a tribute. This essay is about poetry’s capacity to hold space as I grieve the loss of my dear friend and brilliant Evergreen colleague Kabby Mitchell III, a ballet dancer of extraordinary talent, an African-American scholar, a choreographer, a teacher, a mentor, who died in early May, and celebrate his magnificent life.

Since Kabby’s rendezvous with death, I’ve continued to consider all of death’s facets. Death is attending the end of breath. Similarly, poetry always has held the ability to take my breath away — in graduate school in Boston, my friends and I would measure a poem’s brilliance by its capacity to “kill” us — and yet, in that split-second moment I know of something or someone to be dying, poetry also can restore my sense of knowing life, restore my own breath with a pause, a sigh, a literal inhalation of air.

Death’s constant companion for the living is grief, and grief, too, can render us breathless. No contemporary poet I know since Elizabeth Bishop wrote the villanelle One Art has reached into my heart and lungs to teach me more about life’s fragile balancing act than Marie Howe. A follow up to her 1993 debut collection The Good Thief, chosen by Adrienne Rich for the prestigious National Poetry Series, Howe’s second collection What the Living Do astonishes with its plain, long lines that when read out loud remind one to attend to the drawn-out breath.

Poems like The Last Time, The Promise, and One of the Last Days push toward what we can comprehend as we approach the death of a beloved, but no poem prepares us to live with the extensions of grief better than the title poem, What the Living Do, a poem that Howe has said in interviews originated as a letter to her brother John because she could find no other way to write her experience of living without him:

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,

say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a

cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:

I am living.  I remember you.

 

It is finally in the aggregate of keen observation of her daily existence, heightened in that way that grief gifts us insight into the spaces between the dead and the living, that Howe’s last line, the enduring gift of grief, transcends.

I had the unfathomable good fortune to study with Marie Howe for ten weeks in a private workshop she offered out of her home in Cambridge in the fall of 1990. Standing inside the threshold of Marie’s apartment after workshop one night, I initiated an intimate conversation about wanting to write a poem about an uncle who had died of AIDS. I wasn’t ready to bring it to the group, I told her, as I pulled the draft from my pocket, unfolded it carefully, then offered it to her, an unspoken request. She read quickly but carefully with a knowing I was learning to recognize in her as she shook her head a few times, then looked up at me. “The poem is too restrained,” she said, “It’s holding something back that no one can put a finger on. You need to go there.”

And she was right—what I needed in that poem in that moment was to acknowledge my subject position, my genuine solidarity with my uncle, not simply my biology. I couldn’t go to the depth of the grief in the poem because I couldn’t name myself as Uncle Jack’s ally, as a woman wanting to be with other women. I feared the repercussions of living in a family that would not acknowledge that Jack was gay, had a long-time partner, and had died of AIDS.  Until I could speak that truth, Jack’s life and death remained just out of poetic reach, the critical electric current between us still switched off.

I know beloveds who were with Kabby as he surrendered his last breath, an inaudible sigh, and then he was gone. So simple the line each of us will cross between one honey breath and the one that doesn’t follow.

The first night that Kabby died I was at a poetry reading in Seattle. Months before, Kabby and another beloved had agreed we’d go together on my recommendation. By the night of the reading, it was clear that I would be the lone attendee to bear witness to Carl Phillips whose gestures of language are so exquisite that they can double as the luminosity of the moon, hard to do in language.  Phillips achieves this poetic feat with syntax, white space, breath, and pause—the moment of truth always on the verge of collapse like a precious lung. You can hear the air in his poems rush in and out like breath. The very life force that keeps each one of us alive keeps his poems moving at all costs.

Phillips read two dozen poems that traversed the agony and the grace of living as an African-American gay man.  He described how he composes most of his poems as one, long sentence using punctuation to navigate the movement of the narratives’ twists and turns, which to me feel like driving dangerous, precarious curves at high speeds while holding my breath as in “The Strong by Their Stillness:”

 

. . . I’ve driven hard into

the gorgeousness of spring before; it fell hard behind me:

the turning away, I mean, the finding of clothes,

the maneuvering

awkwardly back into them . . . why not drive

forever? Respect or shame, it’s pretty much your

own choice, is how it once got explained to me.

 

In their devastation, Phillips’ poetry bends grief into beauty:

 

In the stories it’s different: grief,

like the dark, lifts eventually—

an abandonment inside which, with all

the clarity of bells when for once they

ring like nothing but the ringing bells

they are, . . .

                        (The Length of the Field)

 

On the second day that Kabby died the late afternoon sky broke open for what seemed like forever with raucous thunder, then crisp cracks of lightning.  I couldn’t help but be reminded of Phillips’ three-line poem, “Thunder:”

 

Thunder

Maybe not ourselves, for once, but each other

*

Not the wilder doves;

not their blurred machinery leaving the less wild doves behind.

 

Kabby’s death, as with Phillips’ poem, has left me with the profound sense that I am a “less wild” dove without him. And, I also feel that within the swell of grief there is communion, a chorus of breaths to meet whenever we gather to remember the ones we love and never lose. And within poetry, I find this communion, too.

Sandra Yannone’s poetry and book reviews have appeared nationally in Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, The Gay and Lesbian Review, Women’s Review of Books, Calyx: A Journal, Lambda Book Report, and Weave, among others. She currently is a Member of the Faculty and directs the Writing Center at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA.