MARTHA COLLINS AND THE POETICS OF GRIEF
Martha Collins, Because What Else Could I Do, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019
Reviewed by John Bonanni
Grief follows its own internal logic, and more often than not, questions are what lead that logic. One of the most familiar and rehashed models of grief, dubbed the five stages, was posited by Elisabeth Kubler Ross in 1969: when someone dies, we go through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We now know that grief does not follow any one linear pattern, that these "stages" can be different for everyone, can cycle in and out, depending on the relationship and the extent of the loss. How can one reach "acceptance" when an entire identity based on the other has been formed over the course of a life? Only in shattering the identity, piecing it back together in shards, can we even begin to enter anything close to "acceptance."
The death of Martha Collins's husband left the poet with a scattered breadcrumb trail of questions, culminating an internal logic of grief that operates neither linearly nor rationally. In the months following his death, Collins completed a series of poems documenting this rationale, poems she never intended to publish. Ironically, they now provide us with more insight into the poetics of grief within a post-Trump America, a documentation that can only be placed among Forrest Gander's Be With, in its bridging of personal loss with the politically violent. In Because What Else Could I Do, Collins recollects the death of her partner, Ted, and the months that follow a mysterious death. Forrest Gander, who also lost his wife, the poet C. D. Wright, discussed in an interview with the Poetry Foundation his current use of broken up form as "crossing a gulf." White space, with both of these poets, conveys the space—and silence--in which their lost partners speak. Collins writes:
you to help me believe that maybe
it won't be the end of everything
so from now on I am going
to keep you posted which means
I will have to read the papers
not just the headlines
There is an ambivalence lurking inside these poems. Collins is at once happy that her husband does not have to witness the disaster that was the 2016 election, while at the same time feeling a responsibility to keep him up-to-date. Aside from her form, Collins, too, utilizes broken syntax as a way to convey this incomplete, fragmentary nature of grief:
waking and having
to learn what sleep forgot
this without this this not
Just as the reader is left questioning—is "not" a noun? without? a fragment?—within this collection's arc, the reader follows Collins's own line of questioning and search for information as we are led into the details that might provide some clue into how and why Ted died.
While a reader could get lost in this kind of disordered and fragmented thinking, Collins has chosen to structure her grief into dated sections which provide a timeline for the month before Ted's death into the sixth months following it--between the summer of 2016 and the winter of 2017. The book begins with a curious action: "they're coming to get / me arrest jail."
Instantly recalibrating what this book is about, the reader, too, is in constant interrogation: who is the I? What is this legal mistake? Isn't this a book about the death of a husband? With Collins's hallmark of sparse, quickened language, the reader is forced to turn these pages, questioning alongside her speaker, why and how Ted died:
where did you drive
how far, how long
how long did you sit in your car before
the shift to park, the key
Her speaker, we soon learn is clouded by loss and confusion: "drove from the wrong direction I thought," learns that her husband "drove to the gym at 6:19," and "each day, taking care of yourself, / 1,243 times, the woman told me." Obsessive details such as times and quantifiable measurements of gym membership soon become focal points, all of which may collect to provide clues as to the why behind Ted's death.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes of her deceased husband, John, "I could not give away the rest of his shoes. I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need his shoes if he was to return." Similar to John's shoes, Collins presents occurrence and reoccurrence of Ted's "blue striped shirt," and later a focus on "the belt you wore / the ring they removed." These intimate details, at times obsessive, serve to develop this cherished relationship to her subject. Curiously, Didion's presentation of grief is also chronological, unmasking our human tendency to construct order onto the destructive force of grief. Unlike Didion, though, Collins allows her logic of grief to unfold without self-criticism, shining a searchlight into her interior sounds of loss.
Anaphora, repetitive fragments, and incomplete declarative sentences create a tension which can only be likened to those lumps in our throats as we hold back our tears, reaching for what we know is already gone: "what / will I do without without." Later, she presents us with another clue: "the back of a drawer // in an unmarked folder // a book about how to when."
Further along in the collection, in the most musical of these poems, the speaker addresses Ted's ghost:
the weeks to come, the months so far (so far,
my one!), my body too, the one I knew
as one of two, though you forgot to take
desire, which is now wrapped in grief's long arms
After such fragmentary contemplation, this poem feels strangely Dickinsonian, though its slant rhyme follows no strict rhyme scheme. As it moves the reader to see the celebratory glimpses of the person she was amid her companionship, the poem's volta asserts that all things have been lost except a continual, pressing desire. These moments of "completed self," then, are felt only in momentary flickers.
Through Collins's minimalism, we are eventually clued into what could have caused Ted's death. We are given the New York Times headline:
dozens who posed
as IRS agents
In other words, fraudulent activity likely acted as a source of stress, either causing Ted's death by suicide or possibly a heart attack. The reader does not yet know. These poems reveal that fake IRS agents who had threatened arrest targeted Collins's husband in the months before his death. Just two months after this death, Trump is elected president. In this way, this collection meditates not only spousal grief, but also on the politics of truth against fraud:
the what the climate
send them back
the end the public
the health the rights
As death and grief loom through this speaker, so too, does this effect of fraud, both political and personal, on the individual body. Loss upon loss has compounded.
And where an awaited autopsy report might provide the reader with some solace for their own bewilderment, our real comfort falls in the mystery that is Ted. As it turns out, Kubler Ross never actually wanted her "stages" model to be the singular world to understand grief, but rather a contribution to get us thinking about our own. One model of how we grieve proposed by Dennis Klass and his colleagues in 1996 suggests a "continuous bond" in which the purpose of our grief is to recreate our bonds with the deceased in a way that we can better adjust to the present. Part of me wonders: Is this theory simply an explanation for ghosts? Tibetan Buddhism, for instance, offers the Bardo—a liminal, intermediary state between life and reincarnation. In these pages, Ted has died, and yet, he still lives. He is reading his newspaper, driving his black car, placing an arm through his blue striped shirt, opening and closing the door. Most importantly, and quite successfully, he is living within these open pages.