Kimberly Grey's "How We Take Our Grief"

Thoughts on the collective.

from Systems for the Future of Feeling (Persea, 2020)


Happy new year. It’s hard to even begin to talk about this poem. There is so much at play: the repetition of division and addition, the repetition of mundanity, the repetition of the collective “we.” I am drawn to this collective we. It is what strikes me the most about this poem. I think it is so often a risk to write anything in this voice — this plural, assumed collective that is so often used as a rallying cry by totalitarians, by people who are trying to assume we are more together than we are apart, and who endanger everyone by melding everyone into a simplicity that fails to honor complexity. Every time I read or hear something that uses the plural we, I wonder: who is included in this we? Who is left out?

And yet I admire the we of this poem. I admire it because it feels at once private — as the poem so often states — and universal. I do not think this we is trying to be all-encompassing, to speak for many. Rather, I think this we is trying to speak for a few people: those gathered in the morning (and I read: mourning), the two of a couple, the intimate few of a family, the member of a we that is not part of that we any more.

I’m drawn, in this poem, to the distinction consistently made between the collective and the private. Notice how this poem begins:

We take our grief privately and in the morning.

This line immediately sets up a few conceits. On the surface, it sets up a playfulness (though I know the poem holds a deep sorrow) that relates grief to coffee, which is effective in so many ways. First, on a pure language level, the two words hold the same “e” sounds, and rhyme in their own way. And secondly, if there is one thing we each do differently, it’s the way we drink our coffee. But finally, there is that key difference: when sitting across a table from someone — and here I am now, imagining Formica tables and my own mother sitting across from me at the Tastee Diner in Bethesda, Maryland — you know how they take their coffee. You don’t know, unless you’re blessed by some gorgeous friendship, how they take their grief.

And that notion of the ways in which we separate our public and private life — it is that distinction that makes me fall headlong into this poem. Because I think the danger of the collective we is when the speaker of such a we is trying to tell people how they feel, rather than to help them notice how they might feel, how they might relate to the world. This is a we of deep noticing. It is also a we, as I mentioned earlier, of only a few people. Notice these lines:

We put it in our mouth. We put it
in our mouth. Twice the clock strikes three
and privately we sit together.

The dual repetition of “We put it in our mouth” makes me think of just two people sitting at a table, contemplating the loss of someone, going through the mundane motions of life as grief sits privately within each of them. This is reinforced by the phrase “Twice the clock strikes three,” as if there might have been a third party there, if not for loss. This is repeated later by the then-heartbreaking lines:

We take the last muffin and
split it into three.

I talk a lot about the enacting in these little essays, but this poem does so much enacting that it’s hard not to mention again. The terse, sometimes staccato lines of the poem, rife with repetition of both words and sounds, have the feel of a second hand ticking itself around a clock. So when Grey writes:

We hold the clock
that holds the mind. We think the clock is
in our arms. We think the clock is our arms.

Well, it feels apt. It feels like the clock exists not just in the poem, but as the poem. In reading these lines, I feel time passing the way it passes in those rooms that are so often hard to sit in, when loss is on everyone’s mind but no one is saying it, where there is only that old clock in the far corner, counting itself away, and you know everyone can hear it, but no one has the heart to bring it up. Oh, I feel that so deeply in these lines, these deep, elemental lines that exist so within the mundanity of grief that they transcend the everyday into something spiritual.

In another poem from her most recent book, “Love in the Time of Formlessness (or Form in the Time of Lovelessness),” Grey writes:

Everything is sad

but I cannot describe the sad. I can only describe

the outside of sadness

That idea of the “outside of sadness” is so present in today’s poem. It’s a sadness of newspapers and orange juice and eggs and forks and clocks. It’s a sadness of the motions of sadness, which are also the motions of life.

The language of grief has been written toward in so many distinct ways by so many poets. In “Harm and Boon in the Meetings,” Jack Gilbert writes:

Grief makes the heart
apparent as much as sudden happiness can.

And yet, after reading Grey’s poem today, I wonder if this is true. Does grief make the heart apparent? Perhaps it can. But perhaps grief hides the heart. Perhaps grief makes us dig deeper holes of ourselves. Perhaps what happens after grief becomes a kind of tree falling in a forest. Perhaps grief is a tree hidden deep inside the forest of ourselves.

Which then makes me think of D. Nurkse’s poem, “Return to the Capital,” where he writes:

if this is happiness,

how shall we leave it,

if this is grief, how to enter it

How to enter grief? That seems to be a question for all of eternity. And a worthwhile one. Our notion of what is hidden in each of our lives is so often thought of in worst faith, but what if what we hide are our most tender points? That which would melt us, soften us, make us need one another?

Terrance Hayes writes, in “Blues Procession,”:

I did not know the detours of grief.

I did not know the detours from grief.

And Bianca Stone writes, in “Elegy with a Swear Word,”:

Sorrow is a mansion.

So much is unknowable. And I think the beauty of today’s poem by Kimberly Grey is the way in which she brings us into that unknowing, and makes us aware of the ways in which we perform our sorrow. Our sorrow: so much like a mansion. All these rooms to hide in, all these dark corners, empty hallways. Our grief: so detoured, so full of each way being not-a-way-home.

And so, when Grey writes We think this is private, I am struck by the way in which that collective we does the hard, honest work of singular witness. Unlike so many collective we’s, which call us away from one another because they neglect the work of understanding, this collective we calls us to look again at one another, to look across the table, to see the way in which we might be suffering, which is also the way you might be suffering, which is also the way I might be suffering.

Grief is at once private and at once universal. That is what makes it so difficult to comprehend, not just difficult to write about, but difficult to live through, and difficult to comfort when someone you love is living through it in their own singular way. Life is like this: the universal nature of loss (we will each lose) pushed up against the singular nature of loss (how you experience loss will always be different than how I experience loss, even if that loss is the same). What to do about this? How, as D. Nurkse writes, do we enter grief? Maybe we should look at Grey’s final line: we think we have arms to hold it. And maybe that means we do not have arms to hold grief. Maybe it is impossible to hold grief. Maybe it is impossible to comprehend the deep extent of the private pain we cultivate. Maybe it’s hard to invite anyone in. Maybe it’s hard to escape. Maybe we cannot do it — feel grief, process grief, live through grief — alone. Maybe we cannot be alone. Maybe the only answer is we.