Paul Hankins's Reviews > Things to Say to a Dead Man: Poems at the End of a Marriage and After

Things to Say to a Dead Man by Jane Yolen
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I get the joy of reading a new poem from Jane each day in November as part of a fundraiser for a literacy initiative out east. But these aren't those poems. While they are treasured--and they show up promptly before 6AM my time--they are not these poems. The poems in Things to Say to a Dead Man are personal. . .and beautiful.

I am immediately reminded of how Jane managed the sonnet form in The Radiation Sonnets. How each of those pieces were so brutally honest it made me hate cancer all the more. . .

Things to Say to a Dead Man reads in four sections: The Dying, The Dead Man, First Year, and After, but it is the introduction that sets the pace for the whole of this collection, gleaned from multiple sources Jane was writing to over the past few years since David's (sorry to be so impersonal, but once you read this collection, one feels as though they know them both) passing.

Jane writes, "Grief arrives in many guises, and carries with it many surprises" (ix). Even in the introduction to these pieces, Jane is carrying a sense of poeisis, a chance to create her own sense of grief. To make her own meaning. To gather grief into herself, process it, and share it forward when the natural tendency may be to keep it all inside.

As I read Jane's pieces in this collection, I am taken back to the older couples I have taken care of in the past either as a medic in the Navy or a caregiver in long-term care facilities. Jane is able to pull us into the places that death resides and to show us the honest stuff of death, how it looks ("Parts of Speech), how it lingers ("Smells"), how we lose ("Taking Your Clothes to the Salvation Army), and ultimately, how we go on ("Fifth Year Anniversary").

The few times Jane repeats a poem from another POV makes for striking pauses ("Things to Say to a Dying Man"/"Things to Say to a Grieving Woman"). Jene repeats and mixes the lines "There there/Hush/Hush/It's alright" in a way that make this not only a strong piece for pausing while reading the collection, but a mentor text in "show; don't tell" even when that showing is found in poetic forms.


The collection comes in at under 60 pages, but one feels that they have been on this five year journey with Jane. In a poetic sense, Things to Say to a Dead Man reads like The Year of Magical Thinking, but whereas Didion required prose to communicate that sense of loss, Jane uses verse.

While thinking about this book last night, I thought about having read TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE with students some 48 times over the past eight years. It just hit me. . .in this beautiful book, we only get mentions of Charlotte, and one brief interaction during the course of the book. Here--in Yolen's work--we get a wife's perspective of the process Morrie discusses in quite different terms. Here, we have the honesty of femininity and nurture, and the brutal honesty that comes of sharing out regarding what day-to-day care rituals look like. For this, I am adding THINGS TO SAY TO A DEAD MAN to the "ladders to TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE" shelf. It would be neat to see teachers use this collection of poetry as an extension piece.

This is a beautiful collection. I have met Jane briefly, but we do get to interact quite a bit at Facebook (where I have been inspired by her daily output of writing as much as I have been entertained by the intermittent curmudgeon that emerges in her status updates). Reading this book draws me closer to this treasure. This loss is a link. Jane's gift of writing is an invitation to come to grief in new ways.

The cover of the finished version is so much nicer than the one shown here at Goodreads. The cover has a picture of a pair of binoculars resting against a shelf of birding books.

If you haven't read a collection of poetry this year, please pick up this one. You've been invited. . .

"Ladder" with:

The Radiation Sonnets
Tuesdays with Morrie
The Last Lecture
The Art of Racing in the Rain
The Year of Magical Thinking
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