As a poet, writing a poem is one of my ways of being in the world, and certainly one of my most effective ways of dealing with complicated emotions. My brother died of metastatic colorectal cancer in early June 2019. Since his death, I have charted time in terms of his death: there is before he died and after he died, distinct time periods, distinct selves. While he had cancer, I wrote poems about his life with cancer; after his death, I wrote poems directly to him, my only way to connect with the person I knew as my sibling. Though the space between him and me widened because he was among the dead and I still am among the living, I kept seeing the world in relation to how I might relate it back to him. It was a form of grieving, propelled by the very simple human emotion of missing him, and though our lives went in opposite directions, a part of me still longs for that easy intimacy of growing up with a sibling.
In her book, The Art of Intimacy, fiction writer Stacy D’Erasmo maintains, “somewhere between the world itself and the possible world of the subjunctive is the image” (39). The image, of course, is integral to poetry, the way the poetic mind actualizes meaning on the page. Within the works of poets, we can see a correlation with D’Erasmo’s concept of intimacy in imagery. This is, perhaps, especially true for representations of grief.
A book suffused with the images of grief is Denton Loving’s Tamp, which centers on the relationship between a living son and a dead father. As readers, we move through the twined emotions of love and grief, traveling along with the speakers in each of Loving’s poems. Early in the book, the poem “Another River in the Underworld” sets up this journey by invoking a personal Hades in which the unnamed river surrounds the speaker’s interior island of the dead (Loving, 5):
My heart is a boat with leaking ribs
beached on the river’s far shore,
long abandoned by the ferryman.
We recognize these images both as personal to the speaker and invoking Charon, the mythical ferryman who escorts the souls of the recently deceased to the underworld. We also relate to the visceral image of the leaking heart, one that invokes a corporeal beating heart as a grief response, even as it rejects that image. We lean into the messy beauty of the leaky heart, even as we are pulled away from it: “Among other things, beauty has a way of dissolving the reader’s defenses, opening up a zone of possibility” (D’Erasmo, 39). What we get in this poem is an invitation to commune—along with the speaker—with the departed, dissolving the gulf between the living and the dead. It sets up subsequent poems that show us the various ways in which this communion between the two will happen.
D’Erasmo maintains that intimacy occurs as a byproduct of art, “a momentary space between self and others mediated by the artist’s composition” (9). There are abundant examples of this throughout Loving’s Tamp. Another image that stands out is depicted in “Whatever Frame it Pleases,” a poem in which Loving compares the flight of hummingbirds during their annual migrations to Mexico to the flight of a human soul. The speaker in this poem intentionally invokes nature, both in the image of the hummingbird and in that of an acorn, which is not only roughly the weight of the hummingbird but the small seed that eventually grows into a sturdy oak tree. In comparing the hummingbird’s continuous travel to Mexico without rest, Loving writes:
My father’s soul weighed less than a feather.
How far did he need to travel to transcend,
to transform into whatever’s next?
While not invoking the dead directly, Loving’s speaker uses the comparisons in nature to mediate those questions the speaker has about his deceased father. The relationship, far from broken, continues through this connection to the natural world, a connection that plays out in other poems in this collection. In this way, we can see both a continuation of the relationship, as well as a textual representation of the space between the living speaker and his dead father.
Because all human beings have relationships, and because all human beings die, the intimacy between the living and dead can be seen as a central feature of grief. The inherent difficulty in navigating these relationships with the dead is that communication happens in a distinctly one-way fashion. My own poems to my brother took the form of the epistolary. In this form, one speaker addresses another and awaits a delayed response (if any response is to come at all). It is asynchronous communication, akin to writing a letter. This contrasts with Loving’s approach, which enacts itself in less direct yet no less emotionally resonant ways.
As D’Erasmo reminds us, “one of the most complex and mobile intimacies produced on the page is between reader and writer” (91). Loving’s collection is an effective and evocative example of this intimacy. We come to care about the loss of the father and the grief of the speaker because Loving forges this intimacy between reader and writer. This is how we turn a complicated emotional state like grief into the structures of art—in the case of Denton Loving, a collection of poems that saturates us in this grief process, one that never forgets loss and also never abandons connection. This can be useful to those of us working in health humanities, particularly in narrative medicine, because it helps us to better understand the intimate nature of grief and reminds us that grief is not mere sadness.
Grief is a natural extension of intimacy, an act of connection.
D’Erasmo, Stacey. The Art of Intimacy. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2013.
Loving, Denton. Tamp. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2023.