Walking About Death: A Review of Donald Platt’s One Illuminated Letter of Being

On the surface level, One Illuminated Letter of Being is a collection of first-person poems from a narrator documenting the death of his mother, Martha. We see Martha on life support, she fades away, and then the narrator is left to mourn. The use of language is simple and colloquial. The lack of gab can superficially appear like a lack of aesthetic. This appears purposeful. Platt wants to confront a moment and be honest with himself, not necessarily impress with the pyrotechnics of his sentences. Whether the narrator is telling the reader of his uncle Frank dying “at the impossible age of one hundred and three,” or observing a “photograph of [his] mother leaning over [him] as [he lies] on [his belly],” the language is almost always ordinary, with no attempt at striking simile or winsome wordplay. Not everyone would like such a stripped-down style, but I found the quotidian-ness of the words immensely comforting. It’s akin to when someone speaks when they are not trying to impress but rather genuinely want to connect: sense-provoking, sometimes ego-evoking, but in reality, a straight line to one’s soul, with no questions, only answers. So a reader will often read these poems at first not because they’re impressed with Platt’s chops, but because they want to know Platt further. 

As the poems propel the reader deeper into the collection, and further into Platt’s emotions and state of mind, the language deepens, the words become agitated. The poetry remains prose-like in simplicity and structure, but the words start to lose control. For example, as the narrator pushes Martha around in a wheelchair in the poem, “The Garden,” Platt captures this mother through her relationship to her flowers. Martha cries “‘Look[...]the black tulips, my favorite, are still here!’” in the way only either the very old or the very young would, and Platt describes the flowers. Their petals “flop and droop like spaniel’s ears,” just as the tulips,  “resemble miniature court jester hats.” The language has become more evocative, but for a purpose: Platt is now describing not only the narrator, but also the senile lady next to him, and so the surreal turns of the images represent too how she might view the flowers. Certain matters of their relationship are explained through the flowers. Platt describes the tulips as having “wide mute mouths,” and a black widow nearby “waits and crouches at the center of a silken bed.” Given that the narrator has been spending so much time in a nursing home watching his mother sleep, it makes sense that the flowers too are silently waiting for the inevitable. 

Flower imagery plays a large role in One Illuminated Letter of Being. Platt concludes the poem “Hospice” on the image, “Black tulips open their dark stars at dawn.” By comparing the blooming of a tulip to a star, he is likening the combustions of the universe to a mere flower. The purpose of this metaphor is not merely to create a unique image, but to remind oneself that death, passing, the end, and creation, merging, life, are part of the same experience, and one can find the feeling of said experiences in the simplest of things. In the subsequent poem, “Meditation Room, Albany International Airport,” Platt asks the reader to focus on “the white, thirty-petaled blooms of a Magnolia stellata, the only flowering thing there in that cold, slow, New England spring.” On a poetic level, the image of magnolias strewing themselves across the snow serves to subvert the reader’s expectations of how a homogenous space and season is normally depicted; to remind us that even during a time of stillness, there are sparklings of the unexpected. And, yet, given how often flower images appear in Platt’s poems, one gets the sense that much like yin is to yang, and light is to darkness, flowers for Platt are a point of contrast to the stenches of death around him. They function as a greater metaphor for peace, contentment, and the possibility to find hope in what otherwise appears to be a dreary direction of life.

However, one must remember that the poems in this collection are almost always a reflection on death and the dying, and one finds that reflected in a macabre turn in almost all of the poems.  Once, while reflecting on the urn which holds his mother’s ashes in “The Honey,” the narrator reflects on a dare he made with his brother to jump into the sewer. After reflecting on how his mother responded, he confesses, 

I still smell the sour smell of sewer on my skin. 

I don’t ever want

to lose that stench. 

To want to remain dank in smell because that is how afraid the narrator is of losing people is a harrowing thought, indeed. There are also the times in which the narrator surrenders fully to grief, such as in this tender moment after an accidental car wreck in “Iluminación.”

I go

to Home Depot

and walk the three long aisles marked “Lighting / Iluminación”—

hundreds of floor lamps,

wall and ceiling lights pouring their wattage over me—

to feel warmed,

held, comforted as if by a closer sun.

It is this teetering between hopelessness and liveliness, this contradiction of always being completely isolated and eternally connected, which Platt perfects in the poem, “Earth Hands.” This is the poem in which Martha finally passes on. The poem begins abruptly with “A nurse wakes me at 7:30 a.m. and says, ‘I’m sorry to tell you, but your mom has passed on.’” One expects the lines that will follow after to be manic, mourning, and messy, but instead, the narrator “[sits] alone with [Martha], [cries] softly,” then begins the practice of qigong, a form of Chinese meditation. What comes after is extremely calm language: 

I raise both hands

as if to carry a pitcher of water

to my mouth. I must drink the empty air. 

Platt reflects on the art of painting, enacts some other qigong poses, and finally returns to thinking about his mother. Platt remembers the last words his mother had told one of the nurses, in response to the duration of her stay at the nursing home. Much like the lines of each and every one of Platt’s poems, the line that Martha says is simple, to the point, and yet reminds us of the permanence that we as human beings can have despite being temporary residents of the earth.

 Until the end, my dear, until I leave this world.

If time is the paste which helps a narrative cohere, death is the moment that the paste loses its gel. And though upon death we become muck in the eternal ether, a part of us remains firm on this earth. That is because we are always reshaped, reimagined, and reinspired into life through the memories of those who have known us. While this process of bending the memories of a loved one to fit our emotions of the moment is a universal one, it has rarely been captured in literature. So, in attempting to represent the repercussions of death not from the perspective of the person who has died, but from the perspective of the person who has to confront life after another person’s death, Platt has done something more than grieve through the act of writing poetry. One Illuminated Letter of Being is not only earnest, honest, and down-to-earth. It is also unflinchingly innovative, uncompromisingly daring, and full of risks, born out of the suffering of one very open individual. 

Kiran Bhat is a global citizen formed in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, to parents from Southern Karnataka, in India. He has currently traveled to over 130 countries, lived in 18 different places, and speaks 12 languages. He is primarily known as the author of we of the forsaken world... (Iguana Books, 2020), but he has authored books in four foreign languages, and has had his writing published in The Kenyon Review, The Brooklyn Rail, The Southern Humanities Review, Eclectica, 3AM Magazine, The Radical Art Review, The Chakkar, Mascara Literary Review, and several other places. His list of homes is vast, but his heart and spirit always remains in Mumbai, somehow. He currently lives in Melbourne. You can find him on @WeltgeistKiran.