Lately, I’ve been feeling full-circlish. As a result, I am choosing to publicly acknowledge the-last-poem-I-loved’s similarity to the first poem that made me want to be a poet. They were both written by Bill Knott, they are both terribly short, and they are both about what to do when a death happens.
Bill Knott wrote “Minor Poem” over forty years ago. The poem reads, in its entirety:
The only response
to a child’s grave is
to lie down before it and play dead
This poem turns. It denies that poetry is a possible response to death, yet—here this poem is. A response. When I was fourteen, Knott told me to turn towards death in an effort to engage?/to perform for?/to honor? the audience in the grave. But that audience was an impossible audience, a dead child, so the poem turned back to me. The poem spun me around, endlessly resisting its own straightforward imagery. The poem was futility—it made a gesture by describing the gesture a person ought to make instead of writing a poem.
It made my head hurt. The poem seemed to act, to do something, to move as I read it. Sometimes the child was an anonymous child—sometimes my future child in tragic scenarios my insomnia liked to play over-and-over for me. Sometimes the child stood in for my own childhood. My teenaged attempts (black-eyelinered, white-lipsticked) to cling to innocence by imitating the dead seemed both absurd and wholly justified by my amorphous grief. And by Knott’s poem.
A darkly-humorous poem about unthinkable death: I claimed it. I wrote in on a slip of paper and carried it around like a fortune.
Recently, I received a handmade book of Bill Knott’s, filled with syllabic verse. Near the end, I found this poem:
After you’ve sewn it, bite the thread off my grave—
Please leave no loose seam of me to wave above
The bones unknitting, the flesh unweaving love.
It is more formal than the other, earlier one. There is a please. The focus is more clearly on he-who-is-about-to-die rather than on the post-death responder. Still, the physical closeness of the dead and the living is here, and a recommended action at the gravesite. Despite all the formality—there is also play.
Only this time it’s not all-carousel-spinny, placing me both on and in the tiny plot; this time Knott’s circle is a wave. Grief comes in those.
The sound progresses. The words are a tide coming in: you’ve, off, grave, leave, of, wave above, flesh unweaving love. The vowels change as the buzzing f/v endings get closer together. So the poem un-acts the corpse’s dissolution. The words grow tighter-and-tighter as the body disintegrates. In the first and second line, ten words comprise eleven syllables. In the last line, a mere seven words do that work. For luck? Why else do we count? Meter is a poet’s superstition.
And it rhymes. Grave then above then love. This is very-nearly a Sondheim rhyme, a pop-song scheme, but then—no. It is a pre-emptive farewell. The title is the poet’s name minus the cross of one t, and “unknitting” in the last line puns. Plays.
As far as grief instructions go—this poem recommends rhythm, ritual, and physical communion with the dead. I wish there were a comma before the last word in the poem. I wish “love” were an endearment rather than something, like the body, that ends. But—no. Knott does not give me that relief. Any closure here happens between the lips of whoever is stitching in the dirt.
Is she a poet? Are there words between her lips? I don’t know. Who knows. What I like most about this poem is that it demands my teeth.