One of the best parts of being a poet is the outrageousness of it.
“Out here I can say anything” Larry Levis famously wrote, and we understand viscerally what he meant. On the page, we get to say anything, go anywhere, even completely abandon linear time, our imagination being our only limitation. We can hold multiple truths even when they contradict each other. Poetry can be a place where something can both make perfect sense and remain unresolved.
In a poem, we can sit with paradox as comfortably as curling up with a cup of tea and a blanket.
The study of epigenetics suggests we carry trauma in our DNA, which means we carry stories in our actual blood and spit. A poem can be a place where we can bring those stories forward and where death does not need to be the end of the story. The grave needn’t stop us from conversing with those on the other side. Writing our dead can be a new way to look at story, relationships, and memory.
My teacher Dorianne Laux says she keeps writing about her mother and she probably will for the rest of her life. She allows her dead to be her obsession.
In her newest collection Only As the Day is Long, the poem “Letter to My Dead Mother” opens with:
Dear White Raven, Dear Albino Crow.
Time to apologize for all the times I devised
Excuses to hang up the phone.
Look how in these few opening lines she shows us the complexity of this relationship, the way the poet sees her mother continue to appear to her, how the mother may have been a rare and unusual “bird” in life. I admire how the relationship continues after death with its present tense “Time to apologize”. Besides powerful imagery, Laux easily moves across time and space in her poems, which work to show great intimacy and the continuous ache of grief.
Here are some things I’ve learned from writing my dead:
1. Try form.
Most of my poems about my dead have ended up in form, whether sonnet, ghazal, or rhymed couplets. Here is where the magical power of paradox can do its work: the constraint of containment in a form can sometimes fling open power in a poem.
2. Tell the story of something remarkable about your dead.
In my writing, this is where some serious magic has taken hold: the more stories I wrote about my dead, the more I understood them, the deeper my compassion for them, the deeper my connection to them. This has been especially powerful when writing about a complicated or messy relationship.
3. Go back in time.
Write about your parents. Then your grandparents, your great-grandparents. Tap into the stories you carry. Like many writers, I’ve taken to researching my family history and in writing those stories, I am beginning to understand my own. Find the cave of secrets in your family or community.
4. Honor your obsessions.
Practice coming to the page unencumbered. Try to shake judgment. If you keep wanting to write about the same person, keep on. Let the poems have their way.
5. Allow for a new story.
One strategy I use is to write letters to my dead then write their response to me, a cosmic pen-pal correspondence, a sure-fire way for the unexpected to show up. That’s the funny thing about writing our dead: they keep wanting to show up.
If you want to write new poems and expand your repertoire of embracing the magical, come to Poet As Conjurer at Hugo House on Sunday afternoons, starting February 2, 1–3 pm. We will read poets who write across time, space, and death and write poems in response. This is generative class; we will write many new poems as well as discover new poets to love.
Michele Bombardier is the author of What We Do (Kelsay Press, 2018), a current finalist for Washington State Book of the Year. Her work has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review and many others. She is a Hedgebrook and Mineral School fellow and the founder of Fishplate Poetry, a social-purpose organization that offers workshops and retreats while raising money for humanitarian relief, specifically medical aid for refugees.