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Lise Menn
Boulder, CO
semi-retired linguistics professor, editor of The Widows' Handbook: Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival
Recent Activity
Many years ago, when Tim and I were first dating, I wrote a poem called “Dulcimer.” In it, I tried to capture how the “muted mauve&gray sky” of a winter’s afternoon, the dulcimer music on the radio, and our lovemaking all came together to create a beautiful outside-of-time moment. Tim always liked that poem and not just because it was sexual. “That’s the way it really was,” he’d say. We married and had a child, Zeke. We were not a picture-perfect couple by any stretch of the imagination, and we both had pretty good ones. But we got each other. He was my toughest critic and my fiercest supporter. “If I’ve done nothing else in my life,” he told me, “I’ve tried to be supportive of your writing….I believe you have what it takes to be a great writer.” So, when he was killed in a car accident, I was lost and not just because I suddenly found myself a 34-year-old widow with a three-and-a-half-year-old child. My best friend, my cheering section, was gone. And for what seemed like a long time afterwards, I could not write. Then a poem came to me. It wasn’t a very good one. But it let me know that there was a survivor in the wreckage. More poems began to appear. One of them was “The Wild Things”: it deals with the weeks after the tragedy and two “small good things” that happened, bringing me out of the fog…. One muggy afternoon, I walked listlessly out into the backyard. There, at the edge of Tim’s vegetable garden, stood a doe. I stopped. Time stopped. In that space, only the deer and I existed. I stared at her, and she returned my gaze without fear. Never had a deer – or any other wild animal, for that matter – looked at me like that. I felt oddly comforted despite my grief. Not long afterwards, I was going out to the shed when a hummingbird flew by, drawn to the red bee balm alongside it. We’d never had hummingbirds before despite all the fancy feeders I’d hung to lure them into the yard. And, once again, the pain inside me loosened its hold for a bit. Both deer and hummingbirds have a rep as messengers, symbolically speaking. Tim and I had both loved animals, birds, and just being out in nature. Among the many things he had given me over the years were a river otter sculpture, a book – America’s Favorite Backyard Wildlife – and a beaver-chewed stick that he’d picked up by the river, knowing that I’d like it. And once, during the holidays, I’d picked out a wildlife calendar for my mom to give him. He’d thanked her, then said, “I suspect Tammy had something to do with this.” So, when the deer and the hummingbird appeared so soon after his death, I couldn’t help suspecting that Tim had something to do with it. That it was his way of letting me that... Continue reading
Posted Jun 19, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
It’s one of those clubs you don’t want to join, but since I didn’t get a choice, I am proud to be among the voices--brave, diverse, honest--in The Widows’ Handbook. Some of the writers were widowed only recently, while others, like me, write from a loss much farther behind us. In fact, my husband Carl died in 1996 and my contributions to the anthology are all in the section called “A Different Life. “ And that’s what I have, a different life. Different poems, too. A few years ago I was invited to write an essay on “why I write.” It was one of those moments writers know so well of writing to see what it is you think. I’m not sure I had recognized it specifically before, but what I realized was that I write to notice. I have always felt that one of the pleasures of writing was its demand that you pay attention in the world. I had even written about noticing as an act of consecration. One poem in which I write about tending plants, says, “apply attention--plainest form of love” Another ends, “what is holy in this life/is noticing.” So it came as a shock to realize that despite all that noticing I had missed a kind of big thing--mortality. Looking back I am stunned by my innocence. I was left alone after 33 years of marriage and what shocks me now is how I didn’t see it coming. Not just Carl’s death, but Death. I had lived a fortunate life in which several beloved people had died, but not really before their time or out of generational sequence. When they died, I felt sadness and I missed them, but I wasn’t railing against fate. And, although I had certainly read and written poems that dealt with mortality, what I find hard to believe now is how I had never really gotten it before, never thought about how death is the most real thing about life. Somehow that had escaped my notice. I had never thought about how death is not waiting somewhere out there, distant, but is, rather, something we live side by side with every day, every minute, intertwined. Never thought about the ending rules our lives and elevates them. Never thought about how it is the dirty secret and the sacred gift. But now it really had my attention. It became my subject, my muse. My poetry had usually been grounded in the details of my life and I couldn’t stop writing about this. My first book, Afterwords, is specifically about Carl’s illness and death. I wrote the poems in real time, as I was going through the experience, from the early days of diagnosis through to a point a year or so after he died. Sometimes people said to me, “That must have been therapeutic for you to write.” It was never poets who said that, of course. Poets know that, while it may be “therapeutic” to get down a first... Continue reading
Posted May 23, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
(Ed. note: This post is part of series by contributors to The Widows' Handbook. You can find previous posts here. sdh) Writing is a very tricky thing. It takes courage and surrender. It requires initiation and patience and I run short on both in most the areas of my life. When writing begins sometimes I don’t, well, most times I don’t know where it will end or where it will take me. Blogging has become a life line for me. It has transformed my inner world into an outer world. It keeps me sane. It connects me to those I may never know and deepens my love for words. Trusting my intuition is the most difficult part. Many times I begin a piece and then let it go. I put it aside because the depth the intuition was begging me to delve towards is painful and I don’t like pain! My writing began years ago as a collegial sharing of words during my years as a youth minister. Now, it has transformed into an outlet of my deepest hopes, fears, longings, and all the stuff I couldn’t say out loud to those around me. My intuitions kept bringing me back to the words. Intuition kept dropping the words in my head and poking me to bring them to life with my hopes, fears, and longings. It has taken form in many, many words… Resolve. Change, Hiccups, Wipeout, October, Treading, Icing over (well, that’s two words) Longing, Hope, and Lunacy. So many words, so many thoughts, so much to let flow through me…surrender…that’s another word. Surrender. I really think when I trusted my hands to let the words flow through them my writing became a life line. I let the words flow from brain to fingers without stopping the honesty, hurt, love, hope, and fear. It became the artistic expression I had hoped it could be. It became a way to connect with the unconnected. It became a way for me to see the beauty of my pain. It continues to allow me the grace of reflection on my journey merely by rereading words from my past. Trusting my new muse, the grief I lived with after my husband’s death, has been a tricky endeavor. Grief is a raw, somewhat intolerant muse. Its depth feels like I will drown in it at times. It challenges me to take the feelings, wrap them in words that I struggle to find and then arrange them in some sort of meaningfulness. Many times I think the meaning is present only for me, but I am often surprised that the work I struggle the most with, and that I feel has no sense to it, is the work that touches the wider audience. Somehow, I think the struggle adds to the meaning…even when it feels inadequate to me. Trust the process. Up and down, back and forth, the words force their way through me and compel me to put them together. I have had words... Continue reading
Posted Apr 25, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
(Ed note: This is the second in a series of monthly posts by the editors and contributors to The Widows' Handbook. Read the previous post here.) It is believed that Elizabeth Barrett Browning was mourning her brother when she wrote this Victorian era poem. Sadly, it seems that she had to justify her feelings. Grief By Elizabeth Barrett Browning I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless; That only men incredulous of despair, Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness, In souls as countries, lieth silent-bare Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare Of the absolute heavens. Deep-hearted man, express Grief for thy dead in silence like to death— Most like a monumental statue set In everlasting watch and moveless woe Till itself crumble to the dust beneath. Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet: If it could weep, it could arise and go. (1871 engraving of EBB, artist unknown) There are poems, more than can ever be counted, about death and dying. That are about the act of becoming dead, an experience none of us can actually give a first-hand account of. Such poems are about something the poet has not really experienced, and so is drawn to write about it. In many ways death is the great unknown. It has often been said that Emily Dickinson was obsessed with the subject. These poems of death may or may not be comforting to a reader. There has evolved another body of work sometimes called bereavement poetry, from which poems to read at funerals and memorial services are often culled. These poems, then, are read and often written to bring comfort to the grieving. These death and bereavement verses may or may not be poems of grief which are, and should be thought of, as a completely distinct category of poetry. And a wide body of work it is. I have even found a substantial sub-category within it that are poems all about the loss of a pet. I suspect that we have been writing grief poems as long as we have been writing. Some of the great Greek lyric poet Sappho’s surviving fragments are of mourning a lost loved one (though it is unclear if her lover had died or walked away). Grief poems are first-hand accounts, they are always about what has been experienced by the writer. They communicate in some way the experience of loss by a poet connected, probably intimately, to a death. Often the poet is speaking directly to the deceased. They are not about understanding death necessarily, they are about bearing witness to it, and the bearing is usually visceral and intense. The poet’s intention is not to bring comfort to anyone else. Similar to the great body of poetic works on the subject of love, grief poems are often written while the poet is in an altered state of psychological being. But unlike the fleeting euphoric experience of love, the defeating... Continue reading
Posted Mar 21, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
(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: March Ninth 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... Continue reading
Posted Feb 19, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Feb 5, 2014