Grief is a shifting thing, a process, a practice that the griever returns to like someone might return to a poem she’s writing, a piece of art she’s making. And just like that poem under the eye of the poet, that painting under the eye of the painter, the griever’s eye transforms their grief from one day to another. One day it looks like a hurricane that blows the shingles off your roof, the next it looks like the shift from one season to another. Such is the grief experienced by the speaker of Chelsea Dingman’s second collection, Through a Small Ghost, which traces her loss of a child through stillbirth and the reverberations that loss made through her life. Dingman’s speaker looks and looks again at the pain she feels at the loss of her baby. In fact, she doesn’t feel she can look away. What she sees there is variable. Sometimes it’s the way her marriage has been affected. Sometimes she sees her own feelings of guilt. Sometimes she’s reminded of her mortality and sometimes she dreams of alternate realities. “What can be done/about the body, about love, when either/is missing?” asks Dingman in “Anniversary with Yellow Iris,” one of the last poems in the book. The speaker doesn’t seem to be able to provide a useful answer as she shifts through these modes of grieving. Instead, she tries and tries again to apply these ways of thinking to her grief, probing for an answer.
The inquiring quality of this collection comes from its exploration of these different ways of looking at the speaker’s loss—there are practical implications of having lost her child, like the ways that loss affects her marriage, layered amongst the different forms grieving takes in the speaker’s mind. The poems are most successful when we glimpse many of these at once. In “Instructions for Resurrection [Of Our Marriage, If Nothing Else],” for example, the speaker is at once angry and guilty, desperate for relief and, maybe, hopeful. The speaker begins in the inadequacy of any comfort, listing the things that won’t work to console her:
Don’t tell me about the dead
leaves littering the gutters, your fists
& jaw clenched at the impossibility
of order. Don’t tell me a name
can be buried in the skin
when the sky is suffering
again. Don’t tell me about our child—
how heaven is a holding cell
for the incorruptible. How she’ll always be
We imagine that this poem is addressed to the husband, who also seems too beside himself to clean the gutters, to order the home. This list of demands is like a list of barriers between them. Nothing that can be said—or can be said easily—will suffice. Imagining the child’s soul in heaven, completely innocent and new, won’t suffice. We can feel the restrictiveness of the marital space—the couple is so sensitized they can barely make a move without causing the other pain. As the poem goes on, it becomes clear that the speaker is sensitive, at least in part, because she’s blamed herself. “Don’t touch me/like I’m wind, instead of the trash/bag bullied by wind in the gas station/parking lot,” she says. The speaker can’t tolerate the gaze of the husband when that gaze is idealizing. She can’t be wind—instead, she’s debris, moving completely at the wind’s mercy. In the end, she asks for the husband to, instead,
Tell me... you hold
my emptiness like a window
holds the sky. Tell me god
-less clocks will kneel for us.
Tell me rain is the sky’s apology.
Tell me forgiveness belongs to the trees
trundled into split-rail fences. Tell me
talk of trees is the real crime
when I can’t talk of the missing
child. That blame is the sparrow
that thrusts itself against my ribs
until it crushes its own skull.
The poem ends in a sort of hope that the right thing could be said, that the speaker’s grief could be relieved, even though the things she needs the husband to say might not be probable or even possible. The last lines transport the speaker to a place where, maybe, a husband could/would say these things to his wife in response to their child’s death.
This thread, of escapist thinking, of imagining realities outside of the one in which the speaker has to accept that her child has died, runs throughout this collection. Often, the imagined realities are flawed—as in “Instructions for Resurrection,” the speaker can’t fully escape her grief. In “Revisions,” for example, she begins by imagining that
you don’t die
but bloom back like the soil long dead
under snow & you are born to this stain of sun
creeping under the blinds of the body I inherited
from the ghosts of mothers, inhabited
by ghosts of long grasses & stem
cells & storm drains.
Even in its first lines, the poem’s images contradict its assertion that the baby has lived. The child “blooms back” from under the ground where, presumably, she’s buried, and the ghosts of the real experience seem to haunt the body of the speaker as “long grasses & stem/cells & storm drains.” As the illusion becomes more tempting, reality enters even more jarringly.
I am your mother
& my mother isn’t the woman I don’t want
to be, & a song isn’t an anthem or a dirge
but your body as it fills me full
& I am not a casket, the dead
like fillings in my teeth & we practice living
longer with expensive creams & vitamins,
with broccoli & early bedtimes & boot camp
the speaker imagines. Because the speaker has to imagine she’s not a casket, it becomes clear that she feels like one, the body of her child is carried there even after her death. Once we imagine this, we have a harder time believing in the efficacy of “expensive creams & vitamins,/with broccoli & early bedtimes & boot camp workouts.” We get the sense that even the speaker believes these are Band-Aids that won’t prevent the inevitable, unimaginable from happening. For her, the unimaginable has already happened.
And the speaker’s guilt at what has happened is the other side of that imaginative impulse. She uses it to place blame, to take blame. In “Ephemera,” she says,
Before our future
& pouty lipped, you ran fingers
taut skin on my stomach
& felt her move within me
like water. Maybe it was a last kick
you felt. I wished, then, as sun
invaded the blinds,
that we were
childless. Just for a second. Just
long enough to feel
Even the speaker thinks that “maybe a wish isn’t enough/to stop a mouth,” but knowing that doesn’t stop her from connecting the moment of the wish to the moment of the baby’s death. Her contentment, “the world outside the windows/making [her] wish for/quiet,” now seems like a grave error, a mistake she was lulled into. This sense is enough to convince her that her wish did have some real power in the world, that she is culpable for her child’s death.
Of all the dead
I’ll sorrow, no one else
will make me so
terrible. So terribly
the poem ends. That she is alive while her child has died makes her guilt inescapable. How can she live, the poem asks, in that sorrow?
In the second section of the book, we see what living after her daughter’s death does mean for the speaker. The grief of their child’s death has been as destructive to this family as the hurricanes that dismantle life in southern Florida, where much of this second section is set. But standing next to that grief and destruction is the kind of family life that survives after such a serious trauma. The book’s penultimate poem, “Transverse Orientation,” traces all the shades of feeling in this kind of family:
This dark hour finds us fighting
over the evening’s meal, the wine
bottle’s wet mouth, crushed
crackers on the baby’s tray.
This fight has been ours
in Stockholm, Springfield,
Here, though the couple fights, it is their fight, and it’s their wine bottle, baby tray, crushed crackers. Their routine is intimate, habitual. The bustling activity of the family life that’s implied isn’t necessarily grief-stricken—at least not all the time:
my son wears your face
to sleep. My breasts, heavy
with hands that paw them.
Of all the men who have taken
from me, it is your hands
I can’t forget.
This couple is bound together by their children—the beloved’s face, mirrored in their son’s—by their shared, complicated experience of raising them and losing one. At the same time, they’re held apart. His hands are so distant from her, she has to say she can’t forget them. The poem ends,
The ache of our bodies
not touching. The cities
between us. Your voice
telling our son it’s okay,
as I pretend to sleep. Every minute
of the past that passes
in the hour farthest from
morning. It is your voice
that reaches me. That
touches me sane.
Though it seems that there are parts of this relationship that are still being repaired, or that, maybe, will never fully heal, they work through their terrible loss together. Their distance is counterweighted by the touch of the last line of the poem—it is the voice, the connection across space that keeps the speaker sane. For all her ache, there is tenderness. They are close and distant, grieving and living, even after loss.
Katie Berta is the Managing Editor of The Iowa Review. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Cincinnati Review, The Kenyon Review Online, Prairie Schooner, The Yale Review, the Massachusetts Review, and Black Warrior Review, among other magazines. You can find her book reviews in American Poetry Review, West Branch, Harvard Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She has received residencies from Millay Arts and the Hambidge Center, fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, and an Iowa Review Award.