A Form of Mourning

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My friend Elizabeth Leo died unexpectedly two years ago. She was only 34 when she fell from a bridge that connected the campus Lutheran church to its parsonage, a crumbling four-story building where she was living for free. The church held a memorial the following August. There, over small plates of raw vegetables, with photographs of Elizabeth arranged on a table behind us, I talked to Natalie Homer, a mutual friend, about Elizabeth’s poetry. Elizabeth had published very little of it during her life. But her poems needed readers—we both felt that. They deserved to circulate.

Natalie and I spent the next several months editing her poems for publication and the next year arranging for publication. That process will culminate this spring in a chapbook, Bloodroot and Goldenrod.

We met in person and over the phone. Natalie had Elizabeth’s master’s thesis, 53 poems all told, and a folder with another 20 miscellaneous poems in it, all of them undated. We read the poems aloud and talked about each one, what we liked and didn’t. Often we marveled. Sometimes we complained: why this epigraph? why that final, hanging line? I loved these conversations. They were slow with lots of silence. We savored the lines. We grieved.

How do you make a selection from the relatively few extant poems of someone who can provide no explanation, offer no defense, and express no preference? What criteria do you use? By what standard do you decide which poems deserve to be published and so survive beyond the poet’s short life? Bloodroot and Goldenrod is the posthumous collection of a poet still in the early phase of her career. Do you simply choose the “best” ones? What if a “bad” poem has a “good” moment in it or even just a characteristic one? What if it tells an important part of the story? But what story?

Elizabeth’s book contains frightening hints of her own death, suggestions, even, of suicide. In one poem, she writes, “The breeze has cut out, or the sun has quit.” At the end of another: “And most of this, it’s all temporary./The slip of a fingernail beneath thin plastic—I could make it look like I was never here at all.” Immediately after news of her death broke, people began to speculate. On Facebook, there was talk of violence: assault, murder. For several days the police would not rule out homicide. The rumors of violence were finally dispelled when the police department released a statement saying that they believed her death to have been due to an accidental fall. They sketched a scene in which Elizabeth had gone out onto the bridge to smoke and fallen the 12 to 15 feet to the sidewalk, where she died from a traumatic head injury. So there it was: an accident. It made more sense than a random assault. Those of us who knew her, though, wondered about suicide.

In what condition had she ventured out of her apartment? With what purpose? Where exactly had she been standing when she fell? It was early May. The semester had ended. It would have been quiet, some traffic, the Mon River lumbering through town just down the hill. A big, mute moon. Did she say goodbye to it? Or was she frantic and inward and alone? Had she looked one last time through her favorite books, The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert, Czeslaw Milosz’s Collected Poems, Watership Down, The Outsiders, their pages marked up with pencil and stiff from cigarette smoke? And her cat, Jonas, had it watched? What even happened?

There are no answers to these questions. At least not ones for us to know. What happened and how and why: all that has been written down in the book of days in an illegible script. I don’t want to guess how or why Elizabeth died. Better to grieve for a friend and fellow poet who died way too young. She felt that she was at the end of something, and she was, in a way: recently divorced, apparently fired from her job at the university. She could not see a way forward. But her life’s work—her poetry—was just beginning.

Elizabeth’s poems are all heavy blooms and hidden centers, insistent but unmannered repetitions. They circle obsessively around an unnamed absence. Loss gives them their urgency, their dark humor, and their beauty. They risk beauty. I love that about them. They do not suppress their desire to sing, full- throated and purple-stained, to quote Keats (who hovers in the background of so many of these poems).

There was a magic cupboard and inside Adiantum danced.
Little girls could fall in sideways leaning too far
to sniff a heavy aster in the dark.
A heavy bloom in the dark.

A heavy bloom in the dark.
Flower as a cardinal destroyer, wrecker of hearts.
In life Elizabeth was shy and kind, critical, generous, full of secret reserves and keen judgments. Her knowledge of plants was encyclopedic. She knew their names but also how they looked and felt and what they needed to grow. She had a talent for helping things grow and flourish in the garden and in the classroom. The first two speakers at her memorial service were former students. Elizabeth worked as an adjunct instructor, a precarious job with low pay and little stability. She supplemented her meager wages from the university with part-time work at a garden store. When I knew her she lived in the country, in a dumpy, poorly lit apartment that she could not afford with her cat, her books, her many plants, and not much else, a few large, hard plastic cups that we drank wine out of, a bowl to hold candy when visitors came over.

She was wracked with doubt. She loved poetry. I hope that love comes across in the collection. And the rage, too, which simmers just beneath the surface—“Jack, we say. Jack, Jack, we sing. Jack: shrapnel edge of our last can”—and the wonder—“the tuning fork balances the monarch on the mobile”—and the loss, everywhere that intimacy with loss. “Blue rose,” she writes in one poem, “layered petals on petals./Blue Lizzy. Someone once had a name for me like that.”

As Natalie and I read and discussed the poems, I kept wanting to ask Elizabeth why she had made the decisions she had, good and bad. To encourage her, to convince her, finally, that she was immensely talented and that her poetry deserved to evolve, become more and less itself over the years. The poems in this collection have within them such a big future, so many possible roads. We wanted that future to be present in the collection. To account not only for the poet she was but the poet she might have become. In moments I see her move beyond the influence of her mentors, move in the direction not of what a poem should be but what, in her hands, it is. I see her authority emerge. These are small moments, small and painful, because to see all that—in a turn of phrase or a stanza break—is to feel the loss very acutely.
“…We seek belief
in shoveling soil, in blisters.
And we find it there. There. There is no trouble
and the garden is lucky in the sun,
brothers. Running waters unfurl the ferns.
Let’s follow, together, the moonflower
tonight, when it blooms a silver trumpet…”
There. There. There, one right after the other. It’s like your foot got caught in a rut, or your shirt snagged on a branch. It’s stubborn, awkward, unmusical, and new. It disrupts the subtle iambic rhythm that had been established in the previous lines and that returns in the subsequent lines, when the music picks back up, and the poem shifts in an instant from the insistent, nearly inarticulate “there. There. There”—the language of someone just learning to speak—to the expertly rendered “Running waters unfurl the ferns.” The meter returns in the form of trochees, an anapest, and an iamb. The vowels sing: brothers, waters, unfurl, ferns, ferns becoming follow, follow becoming (moon)flower.

Or here, two lines from another poem:
November is good for quick dark and closing.
I’d like done with it. This or that or anything.
The plainness of that second line, made up as it is of pronouns—I, it, this, that, anything—the latter three of which lack any meaningful antecedent, contains such expressive force when set against all the beautiful names that run through the collection: adiantum, artemesia, trillium, “wax flowers, toad lilies, soft star Verbascum.” This or that or anything. It has the effect of distortion in a pop song. I hear a fury buried in there and also a future, in which she is willing to push language all the way to collapse.

Her poems find an uneasy balance between blank verse and ordinary speech, what Robert Frost called the “strained relation” between these two contrasting musics. The sonnet—its size and compression—is the deeply etched blueprint under every poem in the collection.
Cricket Season

Mums and leg-fiddles on the air.
It is the season of astringents, of turning into
or turning away. The crickets sound quick
in the low weeds by the woods, but up here
on the porch boards they are huge, gun-gray
in the lamplight, are dead-slow, silent and heavy
as threat. Those away in the grass, they call
next, next, next: a tearing paper song.
Then, the startling luck-black of them beneath a begonia’s leaf
sings a deaf song, soon, soon.
The locust leaves are already yellow
and I am already sick of their falling.
I push my glasses on top of my head.
I let the world go blurry and still.
And so it was the sonnet, those sessions of sweet silent thought, that we felt should shape the collection, its characteristic movement inward and outward. Bloodroot and Goldenrod tells the story not of a life exactly but a consciousness, if the distinction makes sense. The story of a self walking and kneeling, breaking and mending. Of someone living close to the earth and its objects, in the garden “knuckle-drag[ging] through [her] mistakes,” digging dirt out of her nails with a paring knife “in the kitchen, under the kitchen lights.” Someone “low as a beast and holding.” In these poems we find Elizabeth on the porch or in the yard or at her desk, naming, remembering, musing, and then returning again to the world. That movement, the drift of consciousness, is hard to achieve on the page and harder to make compelling to a reader. Elizabeth does.
If You Are Worried, It’s Only Tomorrow; If You Are Scared, It’s Only the Dark

My Scilla, dear, as blue and low as the best sky—
              as Trillium blooms a green drake
              —nothing hatches broken, no bark breaks.
Wax flowers, toad lilies, soft star Verbascum
              fall down your throat lightly: a collar.
              A collar, lightly falling down your throat.
The tuning fork balances the monarch on the mobile.
There’s no word for our Liriope bed. Stay comes close.
The wall paint peels lovely and pink.
The sun sets upon negotiation only,
and I can forgive anything.
I knew Elizabeth mostly as a poet. I would have liked to have known her better. She left behind images and metaphors, the music of her lines and stanzas. And more than that. She left for us her desire to turn experience into something else, something more, something lasting, into wisdom, beauty, and form. To sing.

Our Time in the Barn: Reading ‘Charlotte’s Web’ with My Daughter

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Spring has been falling all week in a mystic drizzle. All I can say is: huzzah. What a hard Midwestern winter it’s been. We hunkered down in our house—myself, my wife, our four-year-old daughter and infant son, an ailing spaniel that can hardly walk—and read E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web over and over. And over. And over. In fact, this winter I read Charlotte’s Web dozens of times. I read it to my daughter every night before bed and then again over breakfast and sometimes lunch. If that seems like obsessive behavior to you, then (a) you’re right, and (b) you probably aren’t the parent of a young child.

Not that I’m complaining. I would rather read Charlotte’s Web for the thousandth time than “make a milkshake” by putting imaginary ingredients in an invisible blender while my daughter goes to the potty, or pretend she is a cow that has to be milked and then let out to pasture, or be instructed to “talk about the egg” she has become by curling up into a ball on the floor. (There is a kitten in the egg. Its tail and whiskers are rainbows.) At least Charlotte’s Web is not mindless, no matter how many times we read it.

My wife, who is Jewish—and who refuses to read the book anymore—jokingly referred to our cyclical reading of Charlotte’s Web as “Simchat Torah,” a reference to the Jewish holiday that accompanies the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle. Each week at every synagogue in the world a section of the Torah is read aloud. Every synagogue reads the same 54 sections in the same order. In the last week, the book is finished—and immediately begun again. Simchat Torah celebrates that cycle and the way the Torah gives structure and meaning to people’s lives. So, it was with Charlotte’s Web. As soon as I read the last paragraph and closed the book, always with great ceremony, my daughter would insist that we go back to the beginning. In this and other ways reading Charlotte’s Web became a ritual. We were marking something. One phase of childhood was ending, another just beginning.

My daughter is four and, believe it or not, everything is starting to change. She’s learning to read. She spends more time looking in the mirror, making faces, taking her glasses off and putting them on and taking them off again to see which look she prefers. Her afternoons are filling up with lessons—swimming, ice skating, soon ballet and gymnastics—instead of the free play she’s used to. Kindergarten starts next year. Play dates loom.

At the heart of Charlotte’s Web are two subjects about which my four year old is intensely curious: friendship and death. Charlotte (the spider) and Wilbur (the pig) are each other’s first and best friends. They ease each other’s loneliness, on rainy days, especially. They play. Charlotte tells Wilbur stories and sings to him. By writing the words “some pig,” “terrific,” “radiant,” and “humble” in her web, Charlotte saves Wilbur’s life, convincing Homer Zuckerman that Wilbur is extraordinary, a miracle, and so should not be slaughtered for smoked bacon and ham.

As for what Wilbur does for Charlotte, well, that’s a little harder to parse. Wilbur himself asks about it near the end of Charlotte’s life. “‘Why did you do all this for me?,’ he asked. ‘I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.’ ‘‘You have been my friend.’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.’” It is, isn’t it? They lift up each other’s lives—that’s how Charlotte puts it. Friendship teaches them that they are capable of love. Will my daughter find such a friend in her kindergarten class? Until this winter, her only real friend was her doll, New Baby, but the times they are a changin’. Last week I watched her skate around the ice rink with a girl whose helmet she admired. (It had a unicorn horn.) She was smiling the whole time.

Death is Charlotte’s Web’s other great subject and, as I said, a topic of some fascination for my daughter. The cemetery we pass on our way home from school never fails to bring up new questions, which range from the logistical (Does the body go up and down or side-to-side?) to the existential (Does life get sillier and sillier and then we die?) to the just plain weird (Do we all die in the same hole?). My answers (side-to-side, no, no…but also yes?) never satisfy either of us. I don’t know what’s behind her questions, whether fear, anxiety, simple curiosity. Is she grasping after her own finitude? Maybe. Is the world made strange when she sees those headstones from the road? Not sure. I guess we both have our questions. We both want to understand something that is essentially unknowable.

My daughter wept the first couple times we read about Charlotte’s death, which happens in the last paragraph of the next-to-last chapter. So did my wife. (Whenever my wife cries during reading, which happens not infrequently, my daughter insists on tasting her tears.) Since those initial traumas, my daughter hasn’t let us get close to that paragraph, requesting that we skip it many chapters in advance. In Charlotte’s Web death is wrenching. White ends that last paragraph: “No one was with her when she died.” It’s inevitable. Not just inevitable, though: necessary. Death, weirdly, gives the world shape and meaning.

There is a discernible order to things in Charlotte’s Web. Three times a day, the hired man Lurvy walks down to the barn with food for Wilbur. Goslings hatch every spring. In early summer the birds come out and start singing (“everywhere love and songs and nests and eggs”). In early fall, spiders lay their egg sacs full of baby spiders—514 of them for Charlotte—and then die. In late fall, the squashes and pumpkins are brought into the barn to protect them from frost. Time exists and brings change, but change makes the world beautiful.

The book takes place over the course of a year, shaped by the seasons of both nature and human life. Fern, the eight-year-old girl whose native sense of justice saves Wilbur from an untimely death—and from whose perspective we witness all the goings-on among the animals—grows up by the end of the book, drawn finally away from the simple world of the barn by a boy her age named Henry Fussy. In the first chapter Fern is nursing Wilbur with a bottle. In the last she’s absent. White treats this change with characteristic equanimity and humor. “She was growing up,” White writes, “and was careful to avoid childish things, like sitting on a milk stool near a pigpen.”

My daughter is not there yet—she would happily sit on a milk stool near a pigpen—but she is growing up. The world is coming into focus, big with possibility, vertiginous and changeable. Reading Charlotte’s Web on repeat was a comfort in the face of these changes, for both of us. It was a way to process the loss of what was, the anticipation of what will be. Sitting together at the end of the day, me propped against the side of her bed, her under the covers, the two of us making a T, we said goodbye to our own time in the barn (that kitten, those rainbows), even as we looked ahead to what’s next.

“Who wants to live forever?” Templeton (the rat) asks in the last chapter. He’s right, but I hate how carelessly he says it. Charlotte is gone. Fern has moved on. Fall passes. Winter comes, then spring, bringing frogs and sparrows, new friendships and adventures. Our baby has started on solids. Our spaniel struggles to get his hind legs up our two front steps after a walk. Suddenly, the neighborhood is teeming with robins, which my daughter attempts to befriend, and a fox even trotted up to our door this morning. The world is unfolding its hands again, full of gifts. It will lead her a little farther away from me, as it does every year. We’ve moved onto Stuart Little, but I still steal glances at Charlotte’s Web, the sublime last chapter in particular. If you have time this spring, I suggest you do the same. E.B. White perfectly captures the mixed emotions of the season: “The light strengthened, the mornings came sooner. Almost every morning there was another new lamb in the sheepfold. The goose was sitting on nine eggs. The sky seemed wider and a warm wind blew. The last remaining strands of Charlotte’s old web floated away and vanished.”