Anne Carson and Gjertrud Schnackenberg

I’m interested in grief. I try to stay curious about it. A grief counselor told me that this was a “distancing device.” Of course it is. But, still. Is there any other way than to narrate one’s way through? You say, “Here is a sandwich. Gary died. I am eating the sandwich.” Or swoosh. I am at sea in some squall, cold and adrift, mist on my face, and the blowing rips me around. My breath is funny. Off and on. And, I don’t really care. It takes up time and space and, yes, it’s uncomfortable but it’s something to do.

Anne Carson has things to do. Her brother disappeared. Then he died. She writes about that in NOX, an accordion-folding journal-scrapbook, by turns self reflexive and classical. Those two sides have dialogue, as they so often do, in Carson’s work. It’s an exercise in distance. The brother was gone for a long time. Maybe always.

Then, there’s Schnackenberg’s poem in the lastest Harpers. “Sublimaze” is a kind of pre-grieving grief, the bullpen for a partner’s death. For Schnackenberg, a “transitory door,” the deathwall of “radiant orange, ablaze beyond the bed.” The poem goes on for six pages, double columns, in the magazine. It’s a tour of expectations, opiates, scalpels, planetary alignments and lab results. All of it in a floating grief state. He hasn’t left yet. When he goes, it will be “we” go.

Since Gary died, I’ve been writing poems, fragments, prose bits, vignettes and I scrape and scrape at the horror of it. One minute I’m documenting and fiddling with the placement of things: the coffin, his clothing, my hands, his hands. Then, it’s like I’m crawling, pulling my elbows across the pavement, trying to get to him.

My slow motion is NOX; it’s SUBLIMAZE. I’m in between. The outside part of me does my work, makes the sandwich, hugs my daughter and the inside is screaming against the deathwall, the terrible unfolding.

Where Richard Hugo Starts and Ends

Less than a month from now, my new book will be in my hands. That’s a feeling of limbo, for sure. You anticipate this big thing coming at you, how the novelty of it, the heft in your palm, will change things. Since this is my first book in almost 18 years, I will be startled to see my name on the cover. I will be surprised to hold it.

But, honestly, The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs is a sad thing for me.

The book traces my journeys to small towns in Washington, Idaho and Montana. I went to these places, first on a whim, to see the region where I’d chosen to live. Accompanied by Hugo’s poems, I found the rivers where he’d fished. I was pulled into their names—Skykomish, Stillaguamish, Snohomish, Snoqualmie—and then into their waters. I put my finger to the map and traced Rock Creek, the Blackfoot and the Clark Fork. On one end of my travels, rivers led to the sea. On the other, they led to the Columbia, and then to the sea.

There were towns, too. Places like Wisdom and Philipsburg, Tahola and La Push. I pulled up barstools; I ordered sandwiches. I met Hugo’s friends and family. I ate at Ripley Hugo’s purple picnic table. I sat in Lois and Jim Welch’s cozy, wonderful living room. I slept in the meadow in front of Annick Smith’s log home.

But, the reason why the book is sad is not because of the rivers and towns. The book itself, as a narrative, is not sad. I travel with Gary, my sweet husband, and Maddy, my daughter, to many of these places and we discover them together. Gary and Maddy are in the book and the journey is one of mapping poems onto places, and then people onto poems, and then us, our little trio, mapping our own place in the world.

When the book was in production at the press, Gary died.

We were living in Morocco. One afternoon, he fell while he was playing basketball. Hit his head. And then, for Maddy and me, our worlds came apart. “Say your life broke down,” Hugo says. And it did.

And now, the book is coming out. And it reads just as it did when I wrote it. Before all this.