The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: 1. In the description on your blog, I noticed that you had served as Executive Director of the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. How has that experience and the stories you’ve encountered in that role influenced your writing?
Grace Mattern: There have always been two currents in my life where I put my energy and attention – working for social justice and writing. My work at the NH Coalition and on many national boards and projects satisfied the passion for making the world a better place that’s been motivating me since I was a teenager. I started writing poetry and short stories when I was in grade school and never stopped. My work in the movement to end violence against women hasn’t shown up in my creative writing as much as I would have expected, given how much of my energy and attention that work absorbed over the years. My essays and poems are primarily lyrical, finding the essential in the particular, and that has arisen out of more personal realms of my life – raising children, facing the death of a life partner, falling in love, tending a garden – basically paying attention to what’s offered in each moment. Finding the beauty in life has been a counter to the pain and injustice I faced all the time in my work. The two currents just never crossed over, mostly because I needed to keep my appreciation for the goodness of life intact, which is hard to do when you face the worst that human beings do to each other every day. My 30 years at the Coalition was difficult but extremely rewarding and I’m thankful for the career I had. Now I’m thankful for the time I have to write. I’d seen too much early death and knew I didn’t have forever if I wanted to get more of the books inside me written and out in to the world. So I left my job in 2011 and writing has been my primary focus since.
RR: In the poem, the widow finds herself surprised at “the possibility/of pleasure.” How does such a representation of grief fit into a greater narrative about how grief operates or manifests?
GM: I have a lot of experience with loss, including having lost my husband, the father of my children, my life partner, ten years ago. I never expected to be a widow at 52 and I dove in to my grief. I read anything I could find about grief and wrote The Truth About Death, which chronicled the year after losing my husband. I learned that grief operates and manifests in mysterious and unpredictable ways. Everyone’s journey is different and grief is tricky – it can show up as anxiety, as substance abuse, as numbness, as dissociation. And grief is always surprising you. “Balls to the head,” are what my daughter calls the unexpected whacks of grief that arise periodically. You think you’re doing better and coping with your loss and then you’re suddenly crying or lying in bed unable to get up or feeling like you can’t get through another moment – a ball to the head taking you down again. An aspect of that surprising trickiness is that the unrelenting world, the sun coming up every day, the birds still singing in the morning, babies still being born, can eventually pull you back in to life, no matter how cut off you’ve felt. And then one day you actually enjoy yourself again, or find you’re a tiny bit happy about something and that’s disorienting and can make you feel guilty. How can I be okay being in the world if he or she is gone? The surprise at “the possibility/of pleasure” is a crucial part of that grief narrative. No matter how convinced you are that the world will never be right again, life goes on and at some point moments of rightness will assert themselves. The loss never goes away, but the perspective of how it fits in to your own life changes enormously over time.
RR: “Widow Gardening” evokes grief without the obsessive intensity that immediately follows loss and explores the hollows left behind in the aftermath. How do you approach poems about death and loss without relying on sentimentality, or is a certain amount of sentimentality useful for emotionally connecting with a poem?
GM: “Widow Gardening” isn’t driven by obsessive intensity because I wrote the poem based on the experience of a close friend who is also now a widow, as I observed her first year of deep grief with nine years of loss behind me. I was very obsessive when I wrote about my own grief journey in The Truth About Death. During the year and a half I wrote that book I did little other than work, work out and write. I barely slept or ate. Writing about observed grief allows a distance I didn’t have when I wrote about my own experience.
I think the only way to effectively write about grief is to be honest and that may include sentimentality – the excessive expression of emotion. If you tell your story truly and without flinching from the pain and mistakes and messiness of grief, people will relate, whether the work is sentimental or not. Grief is so universal, and in our culture so often ignored, that my experience has been people are hungry for real depictions and discussions of how disorienting and painful it is to walk through each day without someone who’s been central to your life. It’s not that sentimentality is useful for connecting with a poem, it’s that honesty is. My obsessive intensity in writing from my own loss experience resonated with many people who’ve told me how much my poems about grief helped them, made them feel less alone, made them know their own experiences of loss weren’t crazy.
RR: There is a moment when the poem turns, quite literally, with the line “turns/to fill old holes.” To me, this shift speaks to the enduring power of loss, even years after the fact, to bore holes into our memory. How has the passage of time informed your writing and your portrayals of grief?
GM: I think there’s some truth to the idea that poets are always writing sonnets, and we’re always looking for the “turns” that bring our poems around a corner to a new truth. That’s what I’m doing in this poem, illustrating both the literary turn and the literal turn of a life being rebuilt after loss. Loss endures, but so does that unrelenting pull to reenter life, and all of that makes us wiser if we pay attention. Living with the knowledge of great loss, staying present to the holes bored into my memory, creates a greater appreciation for what is beautiful and right in the moments I’m now living. I would say the reality of loss has informed my living, which informs my writing and portrayals of grief. While it’s been ten years since I lost my husband, I’m now bumping up against deep grief in the lives of close friends and family and I feel like the gift of my own loss is that I can be present to what’s happening for them and not be afraid to sit with them in their pain. Since I write about what’s happening in my life, reflected grief poems are showing up. This is one of them.
RR: Grief constitutes one of the classic themes of literature, from Dido’s lament for Aeneas and Hamlet’s reactions to his father’s murder to more contemporary treatments, such as Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do” or Jason McCall’s “Roll Call for Michael Brown.” What writing about grief has most stuck with you, and what characteristics helped it stand out?
GM: Shorty after my husband died a friend gave me Donald Hall’s Without, his book of poetry about losing Jane Kenyon to leukemia. I read the book three times in 24 hours – it was like drinking a cold beer after a hot hike. I needed to read the words of someone else who’d been in the excruciating and yet vacant place I’d found myself. I decided there weren’t enough books like it in the world and that I wanted to add to the literature of deep, direct grief, tracking my own journey. I wrote feverishly, over 200 poems in the year after my husband died, and created The Truth About Death from those poems.
The honesty of the books I read and found most resonant in my bereavement was what stuck with me. Our culture doesn’t do death well, though there are signs that’s getting better, and I refused to let my pain and bewilderment be silenced. Deep loss is deeply difficult, and when you get messages to stuff it, it can drive the loss in deeper. So I kept writing and talking and reading, both poetry and prose – Marie Howe, Mark Doty, Joan Didion, C.S. Lewis, Auden, Rabbi Kushner, Pema Chödrön, primary Buddhist and Kabalistic texts. I was also influenced in my writing about grief by poetry that’s able to strip off an extra layer of language, bare bones writing. For a few months I was obsessed with Zbigniew Herbert and carried his Collected Poems everywhere with me.
Deep loss makes life seem unreal and unimaginable. Reading good writing about grief can remind us we’re not alone and that others have preceded us in making life real again and imagining themselves in to a future. That’s where I headed in writing the truth about death.
“Widow Gardening” appears in Rappahannock Review Issue 3.2