By Sarah Hoenicke for the LA Review of Books blog (BLARB)
The focal poem discussed in this essay is included in full, below:
November 26, 1992: Thanksgiving at the Sea Ranch, Contemplating Metempsychosis
By Sandra M. Gilbert
You tried coming back as a spider.
I was too fast for you. As you
climbed my ankle, I swept you off, I ground you
to powder under my winter boot.
Shall I cherish the black widow,
I asked, because he is you?
You were cunning: you became
the young, the darkly masked
raccoon that haunts my deck.
Each night for weeks you tiptoed
toward the sliding doors, your paws
imploring, eyes aglow. Let me in,
Let me back in, you hissed,
swaying beside the tubbed fuchsia
shadowing the fancy cabbage in its Aztec pot.
And you’ve been creatures of the air and sea,
the hawk that sees into my skull, the seal that barks
a few yards from the picnic on the shore.
Today you chose a different life, today
you’re trying to stumble
through the tons of dirt that hold you down:
you’re a little grove of mushrooms,
rising from the forest floor you loved.
Bob saw you in the windbreak—
November mushrooms, he said,
off-white and probably poisonous.
Shall I slice you for the feast?
If I eat you, will I die back into your arms?
Shall I give thanks for God’s wonders
because they are all you, and you are all of them?
The meadow’s silent, its dead grasses
ignore each other and the evening walkers
who trample them. What will you be,
I wonder, when the night wind rises?
Come back as yourself, in your blue parka,
your plaid flannel shirt with the missing button.
These fields that hum and churn with life
are empty. There is nowhere
you are not, nowhere
you are not not.
Throughout “November 26, 1992: Thanksgiving at the Sea Ranch, Contemplating Metempsychosis,” the speaker is thinking her way through the grieving process. She is imagining her lover has come back, as several poisonous or strangely human animals: a “black widow,” a “raccoon,” a “hawk,” a “seal.” The speaker’s anger is what is initially intelligible, her emptiness. By the end, she reaches what feels like a truer version of her grief by finally seeing her lost one as “mushrooms”—as growth come up from the dirt where he’s interred. This last incarnation is much more tied to the reality of his loss. She acknowledges his burial, and the fact that the natural world is already moving on. Gilbert structures her poem in a way that causes it to naturally build and become more emotionally charged as the speaker nears her acceptance of the death. In this way, the impact of loss is not sentimentalized. Rather, the language becomes a memorial to the one lost. The poem makes it clear that it is in memory that we’re most able to live on after death.
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