On Grief: Poems by Alexandra Butler, author of "Walking the Night Road"

Walking the Night Road

This week our featured book is Walking the Night Road: Coming of Age in Grief, by Alexandra Butler. While Butler has written a wonderful and moving memoir in Walking the Night Road, she is also a published poet, who has written many poems addressing the same stories and themes as Walking the Night Road. In today’s post, the final in our week’s feature of her book, we are happy to present a list of Butler’s poems curated by their author, with short introductions to each poem to help put them into the context of her memoir.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Walking the Night Road!

The author’s memories of her childhood become distorted by grief. Author expresses rage about the promises her beloved mother made to her as a child and could not keep. The promises of Mortals.

Fair Game
o happy childhood
for I did not know
that all my life approached
that old sit down that had been had
so many times
so many beasts in that same brine

how could she ever think
that this cup would not be mine

what we had
what did we have
as transparent now as air
as easy and as casual and as
natural as a yawn
as every day as anything
I found her there but gone
my hand felt for my heart
as if to turn the thing back on

that which she had wiped away
with a mother’s furtive hand
had written its name back
on every surface everywhere
leaning forward through the walls
its halos of fiery hair
its red breath melting the paint
that went rolling down like peels
royal purple at its heels

how easy it had been for it to hide
heartless so no worry
of a beating from inside
while I slept it had swept in
calmly to prepare its feast
sitting down at what had always been its place
at the head of our family table
in the centre of our safe and sacred house

I awoke to find my mother there
smoking at the window
a bright green apple
shoved deep inside her mouth

just like that
she’d been made gone

in what
as a child I had reduced
to a simple ray of light
did I not see the storm within
of countless particles in flight
ditto did I not see in her
the simple beast
she always was despite
elaborate fantasies

an animal—a jungle—and a reign
a wild one who had managed
to convince me she was tame
and that she and I were chosen
two of life’s beloved pets
instead of just two more
among the countless hunted game

At attempt to illustrate the emotional coldness, frailty and solitude felt by the griever. The griever as inanimate object.

The Trouble with China
wrong it went so wrong
all that she thought writ
now a crumpled draft
in a closed palm

value her
as you would
a cut flower

for she is nowhere near what she once was
she keeps an eye behind
as she moves forward

only half of her is ever
anywhere at

objects have but one
reason behind

one purpose to exist

think a china cup or silver bell

one action alone
belongs to both
of these and

that action they
cannot perform themselves

so the trouble
with a silver bell

it doesn’t ring alone
a thing like that depends
on being played

so lift her from her blank white plate
and press her to your lips – drink her warm – put her down
knowing each time you could lose her
for the trouble with china is she’ll break

The author longs to penetrate the unknown that separates the living from the dead to reunite herself with her lost loved one.

Dark Trees
across from one another
through the window
of the car
barreling forward
through the night
eye to eye oh

that I could
brush aside
dark tress
like a curtain
in the night
to find you there
at your piano
the stage radiant
with light oh

to know the distant rhythm
that I hear
is really you
I am slient
a note waiting

bursting breath filled
for my cue

send me
sailing the dark wave
of the fading sound of you

fly me now we
cannot wait
the night will die

help me please
to return
to the place where
our song plays
I swear that I can hear you

you are there
beyond dark trees

The author describes her experience with Somatization: the normal, unconscious process by which psychological distress is expressed as physical symptoms.

Unexplained Illness
dropping things knocking things down
drinking fast choking walking
into walls
stubbing toes tripping sliding out
from under myself
extreme cramps sore ache
in pelvis and in groin
shocks pinpricks in left breast
carpal tunnel squeezed nerve
down left side of my arm
invisible string is tied around my thumb
something on my spine
pelvis popping out of place coccyx popping left to right
painful spot on belly button feeling like I am cut open
soreness on the sides of neck
trouble finding words
invisible person is standing on my toes
ankles jammed into my feet sore knees
clicking breast bone
cracks and pops inside of chest
vibrating chord of pain
on both sides of my waist
feet engorge during long sits
and turn blue and purple-brown
cannot concentrate
decreased ability to spell
flipping letters upside down
decreased muscle tone
distended belly
in tears
on the train slicing uptown
cutting through the city
to old gentleman doctors in the halls of Sinai
all of them
knew my daddy
each one says he has a memory
each one calls him dear old friend
I could lie
in pain forever
just to listen to these men

The writer’s attempt to claim her own identity beyond being her mother’s grief stricken daughter.

Flowers of Saint M
so maybe I will never know
the woman I called mother
or comprehend myself or
what I could have been without her
but when the mind decides that

a certain time is over
then nothing is the same
even when nothing has changed

and I no longer long
to understand
I want to live

she was a mausoleum first
before she was a woman
lived in myth before she mothered
her words had been writ down before
she ever uttered one dumb sound
how difficult it must have been
to ever begin anything
with such a one as that around

mother, walking home the other night
I had this sudden sense
that I was walking out of years
I pray will never come again
but every single day since then
I’ve had to fight to not forget
your great story’s finished now
it is complete without an end

when it rains I feel you quake
you never liked to wet your head
your flowers tied in by the book
to look like they were tumbling
natural from your hair like Demeter or Saint Clare
but in truth they were pinned in
my baby hands had
pinned them in
pinned them right against the skin
one day the rain did not give in
it was ocean all around
long after
you had drowned
I waited for you
flower handed
plotting how to pull you out
but mama all those flowers
I have sent them floating now
it is no longer your time
the clock is struck
the day is mine

Description of writer finally released from the grip of grief. This describes the passage out of grief and toward freedom.

Night Sea
o night sea
carry me
past the houses
I have built
one tree
becomes two
ever faster
separating them
no longer matters

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