My husband died last year. One of these days that won’t be the first thing I choose to tell about myself, but right now it is the most essential thing. Barry and I met when I was 17. I am 60 now. Over the last 7 months, I have been learning how to live by myself.
Last summer, when my grief was very raw, I got into a habit of starting every day outdoors with a cup of coffee and a book of poetry. I wasn’t sleeping well, so sometimes I had to wait for the sun to rise before I could start reading. Some of the books I read had been sitting on my shelves untouched for years. Friends recommended some. I found others at used bookstores or the library. Each one gave me perspective on my feelings and a reassuring sense that there was still balance and light in the world.
But why is my morning routine worth writing about? A poet and poetry editor who reads books of poetry? Not amazing. But, I’m afraid it is, a little. I am ashamed to confess that reading a collection of poetry from cover to cover was not something I used to do very often. I have been a voracious reader of poetry since I began to write it, but I went online for Poetry Daily and Writers Almanac or flipped through literary journals and anthologies like the Best New Poets and The Best American Poetry, mainly looking for names I recognized. I would begin a book and end up just picking my way through it—a few poems at the beginning, another couple at the end, maybe letting a page fall open to one in the middle. But that was more like snacking at a tasty buffet than sitting down to a good meal. No surprise that when I tried to put together a book of my own, I had no clue how to do it. So I hereby apologize to all those poets whose care and work I disrespected. And I beg all of you who are poets, if you aren’t in the habit of reading complete books, please, start, ASAP. Before you know it, you’ll be rereading and memorizing, bending down the corners of pages, writing love notes and hate notes and new poems in the margins.
Let me share with you just a few of the books I have read since last summer.
David Ferry’s Bewilderment won the National Book Award in 2012. It is a rich and difficult book of original work and translations. These weave together into a profound, spiritual interpretation of loss, memory and grieving.
Kathleen Sheeder Bonnanno wrote Slamming Open the Door after the murder of her daughter. I don’t know how she did it, but she makes us feel her rage, sorrow and strength without stirring in an ounce of self-pity.
Paula Meehan is Irish. Her Painting Rain is full of landscape and weather and old and new mythology.
My friend Kamila Aisha Moon published her first book last fall. She Has a Name is the story of growing up with an autistic younger sister. It is about love and family, the burdens of love and family, and the miraculous gifts that every one of us brings to our relationships with each other.
Master of Disguises by former poet laureate Charles Simic is wry and wicked. His style is deceptively understated, making these poems perfect for reading over and over as you ask yourself, how did he do that?
The book I’m reading now is Beauty Mark by Suzanne Cleary, with whom I studied at the Frost Festival several years ago. She is irreverent, heartbreaking, funny and wise. Beauty Mark won the 2013 John Ciardi prize, selected by Kevin Prufer and published by BkMk Press at UMKC.
There are more I could recommend, but these are the most memorable as I think back to those first sad and lonely mornings and the slowly diminishing sadness in the weeks that followed. These books are works of art that helped me grieve and made me smile. They awed me with the complexity and beauty of their language and inspired my own writing.
**Pat helps keep our poetry department running smoothly as our Senior Poetry Editor. We are grateful for all the hours she spends reading, because it helps us find the best work for our publication. We are thankful she chooses to volunteer with Whispering Prairie Press, and look forward to reading Pat’s own poetry book one day.