In Spite of Loss Remembering How To Fall In Love With the World Itself – Brian Turner’s First of Three New Poetry Collections Being Released in 2023 – Elegies and Love Poems to His Late Wife Ilyse Kusnetz and to the World

American poets Brian Turner and Ilyse Kusnetz (1966-2016). Photo Credit: Scottish Poetry Library.


When I don’t have a body anymore. When
I’m ash and fragmented bone. I think about
the early people, trapped between one

geological era and another, unfathomable.
Their dust must yearn to rise but can’t.
So much pressure on their carbon, hydrogen,

trace elements we’ve lost, forgotten.
Will we all become diamonds? Will anything of us
beyond an uncertain glimmer survive?

Remember when we visited the animal refuge,
for parakeets in the aviary from ice-cream sticks
glittering with seeds? The tickle and nudge

of their beaks, a perfect engulfment—
the wild delight of wild things, my love,
I hope we’ll have that again.

Ilyse Kusnetz (1966-2016) from the wild delight of wild things by Brian Turner, Alice James Books, 2023

This poem by Ilyse Kusnetz is the epigraph volume in Brian Turner’s first of three books he is releasing this year! A poem she wrote in full knowledge of her impending death from cancer. A complex poem of loss and longing.

Brian and Ilyse were married for a tragically short six years. Both acclaimed poets. Ilyse won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2014 for her book Small Hours. Brian was short-listed for the same prize in 2010 for his book, Phantom Noise and won the Beatrice Hawley Award for his debut collection, Come, Bullet based on his two tours of active duty in Iraq. Ilyse’s last book, Angel Bones,was published posthumously in 2019.

Ilyse died in 2016 and seven years later Brian is publishing three separate poetry collections all echoing and expanding on the death of Ilyse and other deep personal losses. But, also, none of them forget the wonder and joy also held inside this world of ours.

The first memorial volume is based on a line from Ilyse’s poem above: the wild delight of wild things. While many of the poems celebrate and mourn Ilyse, the book also elegizes the many life forms we are losing on this earth to climate change. The second book, The Goodbye World Poem was released this month and the third book, The Dead Peasant’s Handbook will be released in October.

Brian, in the Acknowledgement section for the wild delight of wild things, calls this book a meditation on loss and it is. As I read through the book I kept hearing the searing question from the great late American poet Stanley Kunitz from his poem, The Layers: How can the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? How, indeed.

And as I read Brian’s book of losses I think of the death a few days ago of my life-long friend Kathy Southee, who lived with such a bright shining during the eight months she lived with Pancreatic cancer. And I think of her husband, Rick, who is facing now what Brian has faced. Brian writing the words and emotions of loss so many know. How can the the heart reconcile itself to its feast of losses.

Brian in the poem, Mount Faraway, suggests a way to reconcile loss when he describes two petrels together (those blue sparks firing in the cold air). He saw them when climbing in the Theron Mountains of Antarctica after Ilyse died. He writes:

I’m reminded of you. Of the two of us.

And this is what I didn’t expect. That the world would help me to survive
after. That it would do so by revealing you within it’s myriad forms.

By feather and leaf and tangle of fur. Through water and air and fire and stone.
That I might find a way to continue falling in love with you, and that

I might do so by remembering how to fall in love with the world itself.

An astonishing poem in a book that recounts so much loss. A poem that urges remembrance of continuing to fall in love with the world. In spite of. In spite of.

And again I think of Kunitz later on in his poem, The Layers, when he writes:

In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

Stanley Kunitz from The Layers in The Collected Poems, W.W. Norton & Company, 2000

What a remembering to fall in love with the world these lines evoke. What Brian evokes.

Many long poems in this important collection. One that keeps calling out to me is Last, Last Things. It is a gorgeous litany, list, of all the last and lasting memories he has with Ilyse. It begins:

Here are the last waves of the ocean curling ashore.
One last glance toward the ancient source we carry within.
Horses galloping in the foam, shoulder to shoulder.

It ends with these two sections:

And the breeze off the lake. And the leaves trembling
in the rain tree out back. The chimes in the eaves, sounded
by wind. And that amber of daylight glowing in your hair.
The midnight rain and the meteotrs and moon rising full.
The new moon and the pink moon and the hunter’s moon falling.
The strawberry, the flower, the sturgeon and the wolf.
The harvest moon we danced to and carried off to bed.
The last of the dusk that brought this last and final dark.
And the gardinias blossoming in the vase beside you.
An incense of lavender scenting the air with its perfume.
The candlelight wavering in the Buddha’s palm.
The two of us curled into the hours before dawn.
The last time you stood and walked.
The last time you stood.

And the sound of my voice, low and broken, reading the words.
My hand holding your own when the time comes. And
the major organs falling, the body in its shutting down.
The lights within the cells beginning to dim and extinguish.
The last of the cells in the brain, only minutes after
the last breath gone by. The last of the heart,
the liver, the kidneys, gone after an hour. The skin
that housed you, the valves of the heart that beat so fast.
And the corneas, so stubborn, still trying to aid your sight,
well into the next day. And leukocytes, still fighting the invisible,
or trying to, three days gone. But before this, and just after
your very last breath—
                            my hands cupping your cheeks, smoothing your forehead,
   the sobbing in my chest as my palms tried to hold you, that you might
       stay my love, impossible, all of it, the moment so fucking wrong,
              though I might someday recall as beautiful, maybe, later,
        but now now, here, in our bedroom, the world falling away,
your body so cold to the touch, your lips still soft as I kiss you
            goodbye, and I feel you slipping further and further
into the ether, into the unknown, away, gone, I kiss you still
            with all the sweetness and love that I am capable of,
the way I do with each return to this moment, another kiss
                            to carry with you in the crossing.

Brian Turner from Last, Last Things in the wild delight of wild things, Alice James Books, 2023

Brian who was in active combat as a soldier for many years is perhaps, surprisingly, also a tender and open-hearted man. In a workshop with him once he gave out both his email address and phone number in case people suffering emotionally would like to reach out to him. Therefore, no surprise with this surprising passage in the Acknowledgement section at the back of the wild delight of wild things:

Dear Reader, you hold in your hands a book that I wish I didn’t have to write. I know for many of you it will evoke memories from your own lives, or the experiences of those you love. I wish you well in your journey, and I hope the meditations in this trio of books prove meaningful as you navigate the landscape of love and loss. If you chose to lean into projects that aim to fight cancer, or those that might help those battling the disease, or survivors who have lost loved ones, please contact me through the publisher or my agents if you believe I might be able to help with your work.

A man, a poet, a bereaved husband reminding me keep falling in love with this world. In spite of. In spite of.

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