(Ed note: Today we begin a monthly series of posts by the editors and contributors to The Widow's Handbook, which we first learned about when Bruce Kawin joined us a guest author. The first post comes from the volumes co-editor and contributor Lise Menn. Lise is professor emerita of linguistics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of Psycholinguistics: Introduction and Applications (2010) as well as a lifetime's worth of research articles on language development and on aphasia. Earlier poems appeared in anthologies of poems by linguists. In 2007, she began writing about the loss of her husband, linguist William Bright, encouraged since 2008 by her new partner, poet and film historian Bruce F. Kawin. Subsequent posts will appear on the third Friday of the month. -- sdh)
I haven’t sweated over enough words to deserve the title of ‘poet’; I’ve made my living as a linguistics professor, raised two kids (with help from partners, not the feat of single motherhood). Not much time for anything else. But just the other day one of the poems I wrote made a man cry, so maybe I’m not an impostor. Anyway, how The Widows’ Handbook happened was that my husband whom I had loved passionately for twenty years died six months after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I felt like the still-standing half of a tree split by lightning, raw heartwood blasted open, looking down at my other half lying on the ground. Friends took care of me. Eventually, I realized that I might get seriously ill if I couldn’t start eating again; I asked my way to a good shrink, went on anti-depressants, went to his office every week and soaked handkerchiefs. The sense of being robbed of love and joy, and of not knowing what I was supposed to be, how I was supposed to be, was overwhelming. There’s no handbook! I wailed at him one day. He nodded.
Words started coming. I’d write one, two, three poems every week or so; I’d hand them to him when I walked in. Here, read these, it’ll save time, then we can talk. Like this:
The days getting longer, suddenly booted by daylight savings time,
Makes me sadder this year. I want to hide in the darkness,
Close the blinds, light the lamps, bury my heart under my work.
Suddenly it’s almost dinner time and the sun is bright,
The crocuses are out there, and the tulip spear-tips,
Purple-edged against the brown mud.
I am supposed to be feeling stronger and happier and all that,
But the long beautiful evenings that used to be ours
Stretch ahead of me desolate.
Darkness was better.
We talked. It helped. So did Time.
Two years later, off meds and out of treatment, dating a good man (poet, English prof; bitterly divorced, encouraging). Mostly done with crying, but not with mourning. Took my poems with me to visit my classmate Jacqueline Lapidus, who’d spent her life in the publishing world. Also widowed, also someone who’d written poems all her life. Struck by what we had together, she proposed putting out a call for submissions and creating an anthology of writing about widowhood by widows. What would I know about that? I say. Anyway, I’m in the middle of a big project with the publisher breathing down my neck. Leave it to me, she says. A year later, I find myself helping her choose the 200-odd that we can’t possibly turn down from about 450 poems and short prose pieces.
Why am I telling you this? Because of what I learned; about poetry, and about putting together a collection of poetry. What I knew before starting to work with Jacqueline was only this: Some words are beautiful; some words evoke beauty, some lines have it both ways. Thou art more lovely, and more temperate.
What I learned: some words have another kind of - is it beauty? Maybe. Forget that debate for now. Truth is what they have, intense, hard, no bullshit. No fat on them, and not much in the way of clothes. Like this one, by Ruth S. Rothstein:
If I could, I would
crawl in under the dirt and
cuddle up with you.
Here are excerpts from The Golem, from Jessica de Koninck:
…desiring, as I do, to recreate you from clay,
dry grass, beach glass and sand,
wood shavings, graphite, the earth
around your plain pine box. Anything,
to bring you back.
…. I would sit beside you.Breathless,
we would drive away. In our silence
I might forget, golem do not speak,
cannot differentiate the living
from the dead and out of ignorance
do harm. No one in this room
has risen from the dead. No one’s
kiss tastes of maggots and ash,
The Widows’ Handbook has a purpose: to tell the truths of widows’ experiences; no waste, no clichés, no recipes.
As Jacqueline and I considered the submissions, along with published work by widowed writers that we might request permission to reprint (Tess Gallagher, Sandra Gilbert, Mary Oliver, Patricia Fargnoli…), dozens of individual experiences emerged. There were widows with young children; women who had lost lovers, female and male; widows whose husbands died slowly, whose husbands died suddenly, whose husbands had killed themselves, selfishly or generously. Widows snubbed by old friends, widows surrounded by idiotic well-wishers, widows whose grown children moved out or (messily) back in, widows annoyed by matchmaking friends.
Here’s Jacqueline’s fury:
With friends like these . . .
She says I don’t know what to say, as if
she’d been raised in the woods by
wolves. Did he leave you anything?
Now he’s at rest, he’s with God, I’ll
pray for him. He wouldn’t want you to
feel miserable, why are you wearing
black? Here, have a drink, it’ll cheer
you up. You’re lucky he didn’t linger.
Can we talk about something else?
Memories sustain and drain.
From Patricia Savage’s ‘Departing’:
I miss your feel,
your flat hand
on my back,
then folded over
my own hand
while we sink
into the sofa.
Longing becomes a kind of presence.
From Jane Hayman’s ‘Cross-Country Lines’:
I wish I could
play with the wires
and put back the sound
you sing in my sleep
From Ann McGovern’s “Maybe you are here”
...here in San Miguel, church bells
ring your name from dawn to deep night
You are the courtyard treasures
hiding behind carved doors
The bed becomes the emblem of loss:
“an empty hollow/in the wide bed/they shared,” (Helen Ruggieri); “i wander the house/in the darkest hour of night/staring out blackened windows/onto wet pavement,/wind-whipped leaves./there is still/ a big hole/in the bed” (Carolyn Stephens); “It seems like forever/since you’ve slept in our bed,/but our mattress remembers./It saves your place,/a long, narrow trench./Like a grave (Pat Parnell).
Objects left behind become powerful, totems.
From Holly Zeeb’s ‘Shoes’:
two lumpy bags into the trunk
for the Salvation Army.
A furtive mission,
this disposal of effects.
Hunching over, eyes averted
as if I’m guilty of something,
I hear you protest—Wait!
I might need those again.
Some widows dream, like Tess Gallagher (from ‘Dream Doughnuts’)
I tell them how I read Ray’s
book of poems cover to cover until he entered
my dream as through some side-door in the jazz club,
some loophole in time.
I’m so glad to see you again, I say.
He’s carrying a bag of powdered doughnuts
and two paper cups of black coffee.
Was I gone too long? he asks, fresh from the bakery.
Too long is if you don’t come back at all, I say.
Time is funny, he says, biting into the doughnut
so the hole breaks open to the entire air supply
of the planet.
But some dreams, like Sandra M. Gilbert’s (from ‘Anniversary Waltz Again’), make things worse:
Three nights now since we met in sleep,
and I told you sorrowfully
that you were dead--
three nights since you wept in rage,
lifted your handsome shadowy head and howled.
Most of us eventually find a sense of humor again, sometimes grim:
From Jessica de Koninck’s ‘Pillow Talk’:
At the burial I worried.
Perhaps you will not like the Rosenfields.
After all, we never met them.
Even if they do not argue
there is so little room.
If only you would dig yourself up,
walk back home, all bone,
a bit of flesh,
a tuft or two of hair or beard,
and talk to me.
We change, and in different ways.
From Katherine J. Williams’ Still Life:
… I set the table for seven,
specialize in the anthropology of three.
I’m an accidental citizen of a country
where things stay put; where I sleep
Some of us want partners again, some find them.
Here’s some of Phyllis Wax’s The Young Widow Revives
I find myself moving the ring
to my right hand,
eying male faces.
The indolence of winter
drops away. Birds gather twigs
and build, start over each day.
Buds loosen, dogs race
and play. I think I’ll shave my legs.
The shape of the book (Part I: Bereft, Mourning; Part II: Memories, Ghosts, Dreams; Part III: Coping (more or less); Part IV: A Different Life) grew from the piles Jacqueline sorted the poems into. Each poem tells a different true thing. That’s the work of this book: to show many truths, so that readers can see there are this many and therefore surely many more. Its work is to help widows find their own ways out of stereotypes, out of bewilderment about how they are supposed to feel. And, maybe, to put a bookmark at the piece that gets it right so they can shove it at their dolt of a son-in-law or their clumsily well-meaning cousin and say “Read this”.
From my ‘Tar’:
Your buried grief seeps to the surface,
Like oil under tar sands.
Let it go. It’s the rich black residue of the past,
Dead life become this stuff that sticks to the soles of your feet
Welling up when it damned well pleases.
Let it go.
There’s a season for delighting in words that are games and celebrations, that tell tall tales, sagas, and stories rich with digressions. But not in this book. Its beauty is in the work that the contributors’ words do and how they move in doing it.
 A creature of Jewish medieval folklore, a golem is a figure made into the form of a human and given life.