I love Lent. I love that we’ve carved out an entire season for painful introspection, undertaken individually and collectively—a season to resist my natural inclination to believe I’m immortal, to confront the weakness of my faculties and the graveness of my imperfections, to take stock of the damning and precarious pitfalls of human finitude.
My Lent came early this year. My world has been all ashes to ashes since the early fall, when it was my brother’s ashes, and not just a hastily recited phrase and a blackened thumb tracing the outline of an ancient instrument of death onto my forehead (and then another forehead, and then another forehead). Two months after his death, a friend sent me a book of poetry. At the time I was taking a writing class with Christian Wiman, who kept insisting on my need—both in writing and in life—for the kind of emotional vividness that poetry uniquely delivers. Language fails during seasons like Lent—seasons of dryness and distance and darkness—but poetry deals in lyric and image as much as in words—and so I cracked open the compilation she sent, and I haven’t closed it yet.
It’s called The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, and it’s edited by Kevin Young, a poet, professor, and curator of literary collections at Emory University. The collection features all the names even a poetically undereducated person like me can recognize: W.H. Auden, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, Seamus Heaney, Les Murray, Mary Oliver, Theodore Roethke, Anne Carson, Czeslaw Milosz, e.e. cummings, and dozens more.
Young compiles 150 different poems into sections that seem to reflect the experience and process of grief: I. Reckoning; II. Regret; III. Remembrance; IV. Ritual; V. Recovery. Some of the poems strike me; others don’t. Regardless, it feels like a privilege to read someone else’s story of grief and affirm it alongside my own, even if I don’t connect deeply with it. It reminds of the liturgy, actually, and of Holy Week in general. The ritual of it all suddenly gives wider expression to my personal experience, making it into something common, something collective, though it remains distinctly mine. The psalm on one day is some tortured jeremiad, and that’s for me; on another day it’s a joyful song of praise, and that’s for the couple a few pews up with a new baby—but either way, they’re singing my psalm and I’m singing theirs. The Art of Losing has managed to do something similar. The poems give me intimate access to another’s very particular world, even for a brief moment, and allow me to see my world expressed in ways and places I did not believe it could.