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In a Beautiful Country

November 21, 2011

I came across Kevin Prufer’s volume In a Beautiful Country at just the right time to appreciate the hopelessness of the way the images stack up. Sometimes you have to be in the right mood to appreciate a poem, and I came to the title poem of the volume with so much less than my usual optimism that I was drawn in and seduced:

In a Beautiful Country

A good way to fall in love
is to turn off the headlights
and drive very fast down dark roads.

Another way to fall in love
is to say they are only mints
and swallow them with a strong drink.

Then it is autumn in the body.
Your hands are cold.
Then it is winter and we are still at war.

The gold-haired girl is singing in your ear
about how we live in a beautiful country.
Snow sifts from the clouds

into your drink. It doesn’t matter about the war.
A good way to fall in love
is to close up the garage and turn the engine on,

then down you’ll fall through lovely mists
as a body might fall early one morning
from a high window into love. Love,

the broken glass. Love, the scissors
and the water basin. A good way to fall
is with a rope to catch you.

A good way is with something to drink
to help you march forward.
The gold-haired girl says, Don’t worry

about the armies, says We live in a time
full of love. You’re thinking about this too much.
Slow down. Nothing bad will happen.

The irony of that last line is pure balm to the soul weighted by sadness overlaid by sincere but saccharine-sounding expressions of sympathy. I have been learning some things about how to respond to grief. One person read the obituary I wrote for my father and said “what a gift it must have been to know him.” That’s a good thing to say.

Here’s the other poem I was ready for after the warm November day when my father died. I said goodbye to him five hours before he drew his last breath. It was a peaceful death, although anyone who has been with someone who is dying knows what a nonsensical phrase that is.

Love Poem

Like you when you’re dead, leaves snap from the trees and fall into
the yard.

Like you when you’re dead, the thrown newspaper fails to
reach the steps.

Listen! The downed leaves are talking to each other in the wind. So
Like you, when you’re dead.

It was a warm November day and the absence of snow reminded me
of your condition.

No rain, either. The sun drilling down through the cloudless sky.

On his ladder, a workman was painting away the beautiful wood of
the neighbor’s house. Hello, I told him

as I walked to my car, which cured like the dead beside the curb.

Then, like you, a train groaned past, setting all the dogs in town to

Until, after a while, they had nothing left to tell me.

The silence, then, did little to calm my hands—the scent of rotting
leaves, an empty car.

Yesterday, a child was playing in our yard. Now, like you, he’s gone. His
kite, also, is missing from the sky.

This volume, In a Beautiful Country, was published in 2011 and so it’s eligible for the Indie Lit Awards.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2011 8:16 am

    This is apt for me today – thanks. Just learned that a former student (~75) died over the weekend. It was, as they say, a ‘release’ for him, but I feel like a piece f me has gone as well. Yeah, he was that unusual.

    • November 21, 2011 4:52 pm

      Yeah, there are good deaths. My family acknowledges that our sadness is mostly selfishness. That doesn’t erase it, though.

      • November 22, 2011 12:19 pm

        It never does erase the sadness even when you acknowledge the selfishness of it. I want to express my sympathy.

  2. freshhell permalink
    November 21, 2011 8:59 am

    Lovely. As a professional obituary reader, each death feels like a drip of water into a void. Another wave lost. The world sloughs off another dozen, hundred, thousand, and becomes a different place. And each time there’s no one I know listed, I feel like I escaped something. You, like the downed leaves I shuffle through now, are in my thoughts.

    • November 21, 2011 4:53 pm

      The world has definitely become a different place.

  3. November 21, 2011 9:05 am

    These are the kinds of poems I struggle with because for the most part they don’t describe what that kind of loss has been like for me. I just don’t get them. I’m sure the problem is on my end, not in the poems themselves.

    If I were in your class, Jeanne, or yours, Lemming, I’d be pushing hard for help in seeing what you both see.

    • November 21, 2011 4:47 pm

      In the first one, I don’t see what the loss has been like, but some of what my reaction has been like; it colors everything–how can a country be beautiful when “your hands are cold/Then it is winter and we are still at war”? It’s not that I’m “thinking about this too much.” It’s that something bad happens to someone every day. In certain moods, that’s all you can see.

      In the second poem, what I like is that instead of a third repetition of “like you when you’re dead” we get instead “your condition” and what reminds us of it is absence of snow, before most people would be expecting snow–in fact, a sunny, warm Indian summer day. Again, it’s the person who feels like howling and the day that could be, to others, beautiful.

  4. Lass permalink
    November 21, 2011 9:08 am

    As Freshhell said, lovely.

    • November 21, 2011 4:54 pm

      I wondered if you, in particular, would like the line “you’re thinking about this too much.”

  5. November 21, 2011 12:50 pm

    Hmmm. I do not like these poems, and yet I kind of do.

    Part of it may be that relations with parents are so complicated people may not know how to respond.

    Sending thoughts, and you can pick the kind they should be —

    • November 21, 2011 4:55 pm

      I have to agree with you–I do not like these poems, and yet…
      You also sent chocolates, which arrived today. How lovely.

  6. November 21, 2011 2:25 pm

    oh! the kite missing from the sky…
    My condolences.

    • November 21, 2011 4:55 pm

      Thank you. Isn’t that a lovely image? Something you wouldn’t miss, unless you had seen it?

  7. November 21, 2011 8:03 pm

    I can remember sitting next to my dad in the car, asking him why raindrops on the windshield ran up instead of down, while looking at the mirror which said, inexplicably, “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” Grief after a “good” death is a bit like both of those things – tears heal instead of burning, they run up instead of down. But it’s still grief. Wish I could put comfort in a bag and send it your way.

    • November 21, 2011 10:21 pm

      A nice metaphor.
      I’ve actually been getting comfort in all kinds of bags. My friends keep sending me chocolate, and one sent a cake, and one a scarf. Three of my local friends made us dinner on three different nights. All of that is very comforting.

  8. November 23, 2011 7:57 am

    Jeanne, I’m so sorry to hear about your father. This is a little belated, but know that I’m thinking of you and your family this week. *hug*

  9. November 23, 2011 8:51 am

    It doesn’t feel belated at all. The memorial service is this coming weekend, and I’ve decided I’m brave enough to try to speak. Wish me luck at that, because I’m way better at writing than speaking. (Ron is trying to help me decide how much to write down so I don’t read without lifting my head to look at the audience, which would never do at the service for a theater person.)

  10. November 25, 2011 3:48 pm

    Whatever you say and however you say it, the sensibility behind it and the person you are will make it beautiful.

    My relationship with my paternal grandmother was bewildering and unhappy, but I have been surprised to find myself thinking about her increasingly often and in new ways now that the leaves have have all fallen and the holiday trimmings have started to appear. Each small small change marks exactly one year since each stage of her final illness. “Snap from the trees” felt particularly right. And the paper missing the step.

    • November 30, 2011 9:39 am

      My whole family got through the memorial service with a pretty stiff upper lip, which is the way we meant to do it. There were three speakers–a student of my father’s, who is now head of the department at the university, me, and my brother. The student talked about what a good teacher he was (and what a looked-for audience member–he was always there for every play, the student said, and when he missed one, the student knew he’d died). I talked about things I remembered and made everyone laugh a little bit, which surprised me, that I was able to do that–it was a good performance. And then my brother got up there and blew everybody away with the perfection of his five-point speech, during which he got a little choked up, but was able to go on (my cousin said it was like a Mormon sermon, because there’s always a point where the speaker tears up for a moment).
      We had been listening to a George Carlin comedy show in the car on the way there, and there was a bit about what to say when someone dies. Carlin made fun of the “smiling down from heaven” cliche and suggested that we say the person is “screaming up” instead. Walker helped me keep my composure when the service was over, before we had to greet all the people who came, by whispering the “screaming up” line into my ear. What a good son he is sometimes.

      • trapunto permalink
        December 5, 2011 9:00 pm

        Wow. You remind me of the feeling of my grandmother’s graveside service, how viscerally the feeling of performance takes hold. Amazing description. And I love that your father’s student brought up the fact always showing up for the plays. What a telling yet beautifully understated thing to share about a person.

  11. December 6, 2011 8:37 am

    It was a good thing to share, and totally characteristic.
    I have been thinking of you, of course, and reassessing whether I still believe there’s such a thing as a good death.

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