(New York, NY: Four Way Books, 2015)
At some point or another, all of us will experience grief. It’s our natural response to the loss of someone or something we love dearly. At least that’s what the self-help books say, before launching into the “accepted” stages of feeling, and coming to terms with, grief. Denial. Bargaining. Depression. Anger. Acceptance. It’s a quasi-linear, quasi-circuitous process with a net positive result: the grief passes and we resume our lives more or less adjusted to the concept of something loved having come and gone.
My own experiences with grief have been less adaptable to the traditional grieving process. At least, my grief feels less amenable to easy categorization. My friend, Sharon, died in November 2011. Each year, as the anniversary of her death approaches, I find myself asking the same questions: what does it mean to have experienced this loss? How is it that I still don’t truly believe in her absence? Why does her death seem, at times, both horrible and beautiful? Can I be grateful to have been allowed the experience of her death, while also wishing it hadn’t happened? Any answers I’ve come up with have been ambiguous and contradictory.
It is, of course, human nature to seek order, even as life pushes back, resists our best efforts. Often, we use logic – definition, categorization – to make sense of what’s ambiguous or insensible. Daniel Wolff thoughtfully examines these complexities in his new poetry collection, The Names of Birds, published by Four Way Books. On the surface, the collection appears to offer a meditation on the natural world through a series of poems based on, and named for, birds. The poems do take place in nature, as the narrators observe birds in an unnamed and isolated environment; dig a little bit deeper, however, and Wolff reveals a larger concern for questions related to life, loss, and the inevitability of change. He shows us that experience is not meant to be easily defined.
The Names of Birds opens with “Yellow-Crowned Night Heron”, which simultaneously subverts and broadens the birdwatching theme that serves as a connective thread throughout the collection. It begins:
Dusk does not descend;
let’s get that much straight.
Evening doesn’t fall.
The light leaves till it’s lead gray,
and we fill that change with feeling.
In the feeling, then, which is not yet dark,
yellow legs support a crouched body,
white cheek/slanted beak.
Why not call this Melancholy
since it doesn’t seem to name itself?
I say this is a subversion of the birdwatching theme but, really, the poem’s connection to the night heron is tenuous and brief. We momentarily see its yellow legs, white cheek, slanted beak in the second stanza before moving on to the true object of observation: the transition from dusk to darkness. More than that, Wolff’s narrator observes the feeling that fills this “lead gray” space: Melancholy, a name he provides us, as the feeling will not name itself. It’s a feeling that arises as we face unwanted—and unavoidable—change.
We do this all the time—this crazy, bang-your-face-against-the-wall effort of naming unnamable emotional states. Wolff contends that this classification is both arbitrary and vital. We expend the effort because it’s how we make sense of lived experience. On some level, though, we understand it has little lasting effect. “Red-Winged Blackbird” expands on this theme, describing our ongoing struggle to make sense of tragedy:
But hard as I listen to the way
spring builds, I still can’t decipher the wreck
of winter. What’s gone? And how do we
know? By naming, I guess. By numbering the days.
Our version of praise.
Interestingly, Wolff’s narrator does not name his tragedy, what he calls “the wreck of winter.” The moments of entry into his personal story are brief and unspecific—there was a woman, she is somehow gone, his loneliness is a heavy weight. Possibly, this restraint is why it’s so easy for me to insert my own experience into each poem. Wolff kindly makes space for the woman I have lost, and the loneliness that is somehow unshakable even after many years. Perhaps, these poems suggest, naming our loneliness is a way of praising what’s been lost. It’s small consolation, though, for those of us living with loss.
When the established pattern of grieving doesn’t pan out for us, what do we have left? Time’s unhelpful passage, and our ridiculous efforts at categorizing experience, don’t offer us much. In “Migration Patterns”, Wolff poses this important question: What heals hurt? He goes on:
Time? Okay. When?
Is there some schedule, then?
Does sorrow go south
and, if so, how?
Does it follow landmarks we can’t read?
Or does sadness have some inner compass
guiding it away?
And if, in fact, that’s how hurt heals,
won’t it be back someday?
Fortunately, Wolff does not presume to know, or at least doesn’t offer, any answers. Instead, he allows us a spot beside him as he birdwatches and, through his observations, gives us a glimpse into his own process of understanding loss. The poems are quiet, generous, and sensitive. His most important offering—one that I will take with me as November again approaches—can be found in “Clapper Rail”:
But wind works changes on each blade of grass
like the tide dislodges the fiddler crabs,
and even the rocks are a kind of cloud.
This is a real truth, a constant one. It’s a comfort, even as it’s painful.
| | |
Lisa Grgas is the Assistant Poetry Editor at The Literary Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fratcal, Web Del Sol, and elsewhere. She also reviews poetry for Tin House Magazine in Portland, Oregon.