Revisiting Poems of Grief: On Ordinary Mourning
I was advised—more than once, and by people I trusted—not to use the word “Ordinary” in the title of my first poetry collection because it would hand reviewers an easy pun. My editor relented only after I agreed to add an epigraph listing the four phases of Victorian mourning: full, second, ordinary, and half, each with its own rules for wardrobe and behavior.
Because the poems in Ordinary Mourning focus on death and haunting, I refer to it as my “ghost book,” though I’ve always insisted that it’s really about grief. At their core, nearly all ghost stories focus on relationships, including the hope—or fear—that our connection with our loved ones will continue after their deaths, not only in our emotions but in the actual, physical world.
At readings, I’d wait until I was almost finished before confessing that I’d never seen a ghost and that in all the research I’d done I’d found more proof of wishful thinking than anything else. I thought the audience would be less interested in the poems if they had that information sooner, but it seemed dishonest not to tell the truth. Besides, the last pieces I read were about ghosts I’d encounter if I could, which is not how haunting works.
After first my father, then my husband, died unexpectedly in the fall of 2016, I told a friend I planned never to look at Ordinary Mourning again because I was so afraid of what I’d gotten wrong, how I’d mis-imagined grief before I’d experienced very much of it. Months later, I decided it was better to know than to continue dreading what I’d find. I tried to read the collection as though it belonged to someone else but found I simply couldn’t. I saw not only the words on the page but also the shadows of previous drafts, as well as the changes I’d make if I could: images I’d cut, syntax I’d simplify, a few weaker pieces that I’d omit altogether. And I noticed in a way I hadn’t before how many of the poems had similar endings, the dead asking either to be seen or left alone, the living asking their dead to appear or else to stay away.
None of my dead have come to me as ghosts, nor did I expect them to. There was one night about six months after my husband died when I was sitting on the couch and felt suddenly surrounded by his scent. I tried to hold still and focus on what I was feeling, to treat the moment like research, but my mind leapt to more mundane explanations—the damp weather, the fact that I was sitting on “his” end of our very old couch, how tired and lonely I knew myself to be. In other words, I interpreted my experience as wishful thinking rather than as proof of my husband’s presence.
There are plenty of things I think my poems get right about grief: how relentless and isolating it can be, outlasting the patience of even your kindest friends. How it can make the real—non-grieving—world feel far away and insignificant, and also more threatening than it was before. How you can know you won’t feel terrible forever yet be unable to imagine what that’s like. How you can spend so much time thinking about your dead that you become desperate for a sign that they’re reciprocating. How grief itself can be a kind of comfort, something you hold so close that letting it go feels like one more loss.
Something else I think my poems get right is how singular and unique grief feels when you’re the one experiencing it. I didn’t realize until I reread the book, but many of the speakers in Ordinary Mourning are responding to—and usually rejecting—expectations about how they’re supposed to mourn and what kinds of relationships they should have with their dead. In the earliest days of my widowhood, I often felt desperate for someone—a friend, an expert from the books I read—to tell me what to do and how to feel. Yet even when I received advice from other widows, I nearly always rejected it as irrelevant or unsuitable for my particular circumstances. Those women also may have lost husbands, but they hadn’t lost my husband and thus couldn’t possibly understand what I was going through. And recognizing, as I sometimes did, that this way of thinking was irrational and unhelpful didn’t change how I felt.
If I’m not quite as proud of Ordinary Mourning as I was when it was first published, I’m not embarrassed by it either. I’m glad I imagined so many different voices and kinds of haunting, glad that the cover doesn’t show the outline of a ghost and that the one printing mistake is practically invisible. And I’m also glad I fought to keep the collection’s title, which for me captures something I didn’t fully understand until after my huge losses: mourning may be one of the more “ordinary” emotions we experience, but that’s never how it feels when we’re doing it.