A newspaper recently published a photo of me with my first wife, Katie, sitting at a café in Bucharest, sometime in the fall of 2006. We were killing an hour or so with my parents, who were visiting from Florida. We had reservations to tour the gardens across town, and Katie had arranged for a driver from her work to take us there. Because we were early to meet the driver, we ordered some long espressos and sandwiches. In the photo, I am leaning across a wrought iron table and Katie is smiling. I am wearing a checkered blue short-sleeve shirt and blue jeans, and Katie is wearing a black fleece top. She looks good, happy, not too put-out: photos were never Katie’s thing.
The place where we spread Katie’s ashes is about a mile along the path of a nature preserve in Katie’s hometown. It is a beautiful spot: a turn where the grasslands open up, just far enough from the train tracks. In the fall and spring, wildflowers bloom in the grass. It overgrows in the summer and thins out with winter. The evening we spread her ashes, Katie’s uncle Tim, this big-hearted, soft-spoken, generous guy, walked with me a while, then said, “John, I’ve never known you to be a selfish guy. Why don’t you let someone else carry those for a while?” It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone else would want to. I gladly handed the box across. Everyone, it seems, eventually took a turn.
A few weeks later, living in Indiana with Katie’s brother’s family, I started writing poems about my experience of grief. A friend had written an email in which he said, quite kindly, that there were no words to offer for Katie’s loss. I read those words with considerable anger, as a kind of resignation to the limits of contemporary elegy. How had Classical invocations to the living become insular statements of individual loss? Like many writers (and no doubt many writers with MFAs), I had learned that an ironic sensibility was the only true filter for experiencing the world while avoiding the prepackaged dreck that cheapens common experience. In other words, irony was the best protection against what seemed mawkish in life, “emotion.” But I now understood the meaning-driven potential of the other side of the irony coin, that speaking plainly and not aestheticizing either the witness or the writing itself invited an awareness of something even more dangerous, honest, and rare: genuine emotion.
That afternoon, I sat down at the computer, opened a Word document, and cried my way through a first draft, which started with the memory of my grandfather:
Her last few years in the house
my grandmother mastered a capacity for preserving foodstuffs,
uncertain what would be lost, or when.
When we emptied her deep freezer we found
butter from 1994, hogsheads of ice cream, enough lemon concentrate
to ceviche the lake where I fished with my grandfather.
He was a quiet man who was always doing nice things.
During his wake my father delivered the sort of elegy
I want to write now but I don’t know where to start.
When the poem was finished, I posted it to my blog, which had become a kind of clearinghouse for friends and family to post photographs and memories of Katie. The new poem, “There Are No Words,” felt important and true to this very small, focused audience. The response was supportive and appreciative. I understood something that, in retrospect, seems really obvious: writers have an easier time than most expressing certain thoughts and experiences. More surprising was how, at least in those early days of living without Katie, chronicling grief was therapeutic for the people around me. The writing became one kind of communal, positive experience.
In that first year, I undertook a “months poem” project of writing at least one poem each month about grief (typically, I wrote five or six). Posting a months poem was also a way to mark off that, indeed, the preceding month had passed and another was beginning. I felt purposeful. These poems were vibrant and important, in a way that earlier poems, though thoughtful and accomplished, did not. I thought of that Seamus Heaney essay about Sylvia Plath writing her October poems: was the poetic muse speaking directly through me? Or, had so many years of keeping up the daily act of writing honed my skills so that I could write during this difficult time? And, was I merely delusional in thinking that these poems mattered so much?
In the two months before the first anniversary of Katie’s death, my personal situation changed significantly. The Katie Memorial Foundation (KMF), which Katie’s friends and family had founded together, awarded its first scholarship for graduate-level grassroots international public health work, named for her. We received our official nonprofit status from the IRS, and began a period of strong growth. I was awarded a Stegner Fellowship, which well exceeded my wildest dreams, creatively: I would now have two years to devote exclusively to writing, and I was moving to California. Visiting Stanford that spring, I began an extremely cautious, optimistic, more intensive friendship with an old friend who lived in California, who later became my wife. For the first time in a long while I felt hopeful. How to write about that?
That spring, I commenced a longer creative project, a ghazal series that would both chronicle the year of grief and speak honestly about what had changed in that time. Like Spencer Reece’s “Florida Ghazals,” I found in the couplet end-words, authorial invocations, and end-stopped lines of the ghazal form a sympathetic and accommodating vehicle for the shifting momentums and anticlimaxes of elegy. Elliptical and self-referential in its visual presentation, the ghazal required a kind of internal logic absent in other forms—especially the villanelle and sestina, which make creative hay of enjambments and end-rhyme variations—that dovetailed nicely with both the uncertainty and heartsick optimism I wanted to express.
Selections from “Katie Ghazals” appear in the forthcoming issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review.
“Katie Ghazals” is also at the heart of a manuscript of elegiac poems that I put into shape last week, for the fall first-book contests and open-reading periods. Looking over the manuscript, a friend worried that readers who did not know the circumstances of Katie’s death might feel cheated when, reaching the end, they discover that those circumstances are not revealed. As with this blog post, I’ve gone back and forth on whether to speak about the circumstances of Katie’s death, and then to what extent. How does a writer contextualize the intimate details of violent death, short of stating them explicitly? How elusive can the elegy form be about those details? In The Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, Mark Strand and Eavan Boland set out three circumstances for elegy writing (I paraphrase): naming the death, acknowledging the loss, and instructing the living. The latter is especially important because the anguish of such loss must ultimately be public, in order to qualify as elegy. Does it follow, then, that naming the circumstances of violent death highlights the arbitrary nature of such experiences, and so makes the loss itself that much more relatable? Or, does the specificity isolate the unfamiliar?
In more serious moments, Katie would say that she found great meaning in the arbitrary potential of our deaths, that the uncertainty made things sacred. I admired this perspective. It seemed much more mature than my own, which consists, largely, of basically hoping for the best. And yet, optimism, even the most foolish variety of it, is an incredibly powerful method of withstanding. Believing that the giant hole that loss tears in our social fabric, however general or local, can be repaired creates an obligation on the part of the living to do the work of symbolic restitution. My therapist puts it another way: choosing to be a victim is an entirely separate thing from being victimized.
In the background of the newspaper photo, an old couple is passing by. He has white hair and is wearing a blue suit. She has fashionable brown hair, probably dyed, and is wearing a long leather coat. I kept this photo on my desk in Indiana for a long time. Whether the couple is embroiled in relationship drama, out to see a movie, or merely returning to their home in the silence of separate fidelities, I admired them for what, to me, looked like the constancy and mixed blessings of a long life together. Setting up my new apartment in San Francisco last fall, I was reluctant to display photos. I was wary of explaining Katie’s life and death to new friends. And, I was also trying to measure out the appropriate spaces of new love. My then-girlfriend/now-wife would have nothing of such caution. She suggested immediately that we put up some photos of Katie and me. I tried the newspaper photo, then one from our wedding, some family shots. Then I remembered a piece of artwork that one of my nieces gave me when I moved in with her family in Indiana. It’s a thick white canvas with black asterisk-style stars painted in the sky over a single, thick, black brushstroke of horizon. Among the stars she has painted, “Katie.” When I look at that painting now, I think of Katie’s death, and then I think about my nieces, and the year of living with a family who took me in as their own, and that helped me get better.
John W. Evans's poems have appeared previously in Hayden's Ferry Review and in Boston Review, The Southern Review, Best New Poets 2006, and Verse Daily. He is currently a Wallace Stegner fellow in poetry at Stanford University. [To preorder the next issue of HFR, email HFR@asu.edu.]