Grief – Three Poems – Dickman, Stone & Inverarity

American Poet Mathew Dickman. Photo Credit: PoetryEverywhere Project


When grief comes to you as a purple gorilla
you must count yourself lucky.
You must offer her what’s left
of your dinner, the book you were trying to finish
you must put aside,
and make her a place to sit at the foot of your bed,
her eyes moving from the clock
to the television and back again.
I am not afraid. She has been here before
and now I can recognize her gait
as she approaches the house.
Some nights, when I know she’s coming,
I unlock the door, lie down on my back,
and count her steps
from the street to the porch.
Tonight she brings a pencil and a ream of paper,
tells me to write down
everyone I have ever known,
and we separate them between the living and the dead
so she can pick each name at random.
I play her favorite Willie Nelson album
because she misses Texas
but I don’t ask why.
She hums a little,
the way my brother does when he gardens.
We sit for an hour
while she tells me how unreasonable I’ve been,
crying in the checkout line,
refusing to eat, refusing to shower,
all the smoking and all the drinking.
Eventually she puts one of her heavy
purple arms around me, leans
her head against mine,
and all of a sudden things are feeling romantic.
So I tell her,
things are feeling romantic.
She pulls another name, this time
from the dead,
and turns to me in that way that parents do
so you feel embarrassed or ashamed of something.
Romantic? she says,
reading the name out loud, slowly,
so I am aware of each syllable, each vowel
wrapping around the bones like new muscle,
the sound of that person’s body
and how reckless it is,
how careless that his name is in one pile and not the other.

Mathew Dickman from All-American Poem, American Poetry Review/ Copper Canyon Press, 2008

Grief poems ain’t nothing new! They sure are not! But I was reminded of two great grief poems by Mathew Dickman and Ruth Stone through a new grief poem that showed up in Geist On-Line last week. I enjoyed that poem, Grief, by Canadian poet, Geoff Inverarity but sure heard echoes of Dickman’s and Stone’s poems in his.  The way Grief takes on a persona, becomes a human or speaking-presence in the poem. I wonder if Inverarity has seen the Dickman and Stone poems which came out long before his. It seems possible, for sure.

Mathew and his twin brother Michael  burst into the American poetry scene in the middish 2000’s. And they continue to make waves with their poetry. Mathew’s poem Grief is typical of Mathew’s seemingly easy-going conversational style. And is one of his better known poems. Hard not to remember his image of Grief as a purple gorilla! Both brothers write about the death of their older brother by suicide and in 2016 released in the U.K. through Faber & Faber, a collaborative book, Brother, which included their poems about him and suicide. That book includes Grief.

I so appreciate Mathew’s image of this seemingly friendly purple gorilla.  The sense that the narrator has made friends with grief. Does not fear it, is not in thrall, to it.  Until the end, that is, when the purple gorilla makes the grief all too real again. And the casual and seemingly, but not, throw away last line: how careless that his name is in one pile and not the other. Ouch. And double ouch.

That damn purple gorilla. How it can turn on you. Two dear friends of mine have lost husbands in the past year. One to cancer and one to a heart attack. They both tell of not knowing when the purple gorilla might show up out of the blue and grief once again strikes them. It can happen during some normal activity or when reading a poem.

And I like how Mathew’s poem has echoes in Ruth Stone’s below. She calls grief the muse but the impact is the same. Stone famously came to the public’s eye as a poet late in life at eighty four when her tenth book, Ordinary Words (1999) won the National Book Critics Circle Award. And in 2002 her next book In the Next Galaxy, won the National Book Award. And in 2009, at age ninety four, her book What Love Comes To: New & Selected Poems (2008), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize! Here’s her poem:

American poet Ruth Stone (1915-2011). Photo Credit: Melville House


After thirty years
the widow gets smug.
“Well, I did it,”
She brags,
“with my own bare hands.”
The muse shrugs.
Did what?”
The muse leads her to
a back stairway.
There is his undershirt
in an old trunk.
“Smell that,” the muse says.
The widow inhales his lost perspiration.
“You brute,” she whimpers.
The muse takes a bone
out of her arm
and knocks the widow senseless.
“She’ll never learn,”
the muse simpers.

Ruth Stone from What Love Comes To, Copper Canyon Press, 2011

Stone also lost her husband to suicide and she has many poems that are informed by that painful trauma. As in this one. How it is years later figuring she (her narrator) has healed from that tragic death that left her alone to bring up their young children, grief (or the muse) came back with a vengeance. Oh those tough last lines:

There is his undershirt
in an old trunk.
“Smell that,” the muse says.
The widow inhales his lost perspiration.
“You brute,” she whimpers.
The muse takes a bone
out of her arm
and knocks the widow senseless.

Canadian Poet and Filmmaker, Geoff Inverarity. Photo Credit: Geist Magazine

Here now is Geoff Inverarity’s poem. I really like it but also feel it owes a lot to the Dickman and Stone poems. If he had not seen those poems then it uncannily captures so much of what is in the Dickman and Stone poems: turns up no notice on the doorstep whenever.….


Grief’s a bastard.
Turns up no notice on the doorstep whenever
moves in doesn’t shower doesn’t shave
won’t do dishes
dirty laundry
eats badly spends hours in the bathroom
keeps you awake half the night
shows no consideration
puts a filter on all the views
no matter how sunny it gets
the place still looks like shit.

Grief’s a bastard.
Talks long distance drinks too much overmedicates can’t finish a book
keeps flipping channels mutes the sound
turns down the colour
’til it’s all washed out
faded away.

Grief will travel anywhere in the world to be with you
nothing too extravagant for Grief
can take the whole sky
paint it bloodred demolish cities
call down storms
turn forests to sawdust
punch holes in mountain ranges
bedroom doors.

Speaks for you
whether you like it or not
even though there’s nothing left to say
and no words left to say it with
roars furious flails around
when you ask him how things are the fucker tells you
trails along behind on walks
dead-eyed pathetic shuffles
’til you wait up and turn
taking a deep breath
knowing what’s coming.

Gets old acts distant suddenly doesn’t call for weeks
then comes over with too much whiskey and a bag of crappy
skunkweed just to keep you on your toes.
Jumps you in an alley after a movie
and while he’s beating you says
we must keep working on this relationship.

Geoff Inverarity from Geist #110, Fall 2018

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