Thursday, December 3, 2015

Next Door to the Dead--October Blog Binge

I have lived next door to a cemetery for the past 18 years.  When we first moved here, some of my friends and family shuddered at the thought. But my mom weighed in with the wisdom of Grandma Margaret who once said in her typical cynicism, “you have nothing to fear from those people. It’s the live ones you have to worry about.”

Poet, Kathleen Driskell, also lives next to a cemetery which she uses for inspiration in her new collection, Next Door to the Dead: Poems from University Press of Kentucky’s Kentucky Voices series, 2015. Driskell is associate editor of the Louisville Review and professor of creative writing at Spaulding University where she also helps direct the low-residency MFA in Writing program.  She is the author of numerous books and collections, including Laughing Sickness and Seed Across Snow.

The collection begins with an “Ars Poetica” section, which loosely defined, is a reason for writing. In it, she describes the cemetery before her and the effect it has on her creativity in these lines:

“…With this dark 
imagination, my only god, lifts, takes wing.”

Part 1 contains poems about buzzards carrying away roadkill, funerals that invade the poet’s privacy even though the preacher assured her the cemetery was inactive, mowers who attend the graves, and some imagined back stories for specific grave markers. This section seems to be mostly about the day-to-day of the cemetery’s present.  One poem that resonated with my own experiences living next to a cemetery is entitled “What Haunts.”  Instead of ghosts, as the reader might suspect from the title, Driskell and her husband are beset by teenagers who feel some rite-of-passage obligation to hang around in dark, scary places in the middle of the night. Much of the imagery of this poem paints the invaders as ghostly with words like “float,” “haunts,”
“flitting through air,” “seeming to hang airborne.”  But from the beginning of the poem, Driskell also paints their swagger and life force as something very animal and dangerous. In lines like “the hands of a mob steady in pursuit of scent,” and “bared teeth,” she creates the kind of living being my grandma feared.

Part 2 begins again with the cemetery markers, but Driskell journeys farther afield into her contemplations about the dead. One poem takes us to the Irish Sea, another to the Aran Islands, and yet another to the Kentucky Science Center.  My favorite poem in this section is told in the persona of a mummy at the museum. She talks about her death, her status, how she ends up without a head because of the 1937 flood. Then comically, she relates how two boys reel in her head while fishing. Another poem in this section reveals how Dante Gabriel Rosetti buries love poems with his wife, later realizing that he never made copies.

Part 3 explores the graves of slaves, the marker of a snake handler who dies from snakebite, the contrast between markers for Colonel Sanders and his wife, and a melancholy persona poem about a stillborn child.  The poet also considers why some stones are so small and how that surely cannot indicate the soul’s true worth. A mathematician, still figuring from his grave, laments:

“…I’ve come to 
understand the slash of a grieving man walking
against the winter wind and the equal signs
that wagon wheels leave in the mud
when carrying an infant’s coffin.”

Part 4 takes on a contemplative tone, considering the nature of aging, death and dying. The poet considers the skull of a deer as she takes her daily walk through the woods. She also observes a man who chainsaws “orphan trees encroaching at the wild edges” of the cemetery. The poem, entitled “Clear Cut” describes the raw work of mourning one’s child. A set of persona poems tells the sad tale of domestic abuse. Old dogs and old people defy death. An empty grave mocks and beckons. Driskell closes her satisfying collection with a poem about birds flying in murmuration over the cemetery. As the flock alights on branches, this image emerges:

“…each branch
like a road leading to the heart

      of a town I had not known

I wished to visit.”

I enjoyed my visit Next Door to the Dead. You can find a link to Kathleen Driskell’s latest collection of poetry at

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