On loss, loss writing, and our forms for living

Illustration by Alfred Concanen from ‘Broadstone Hall, and other poems’ (1875) by William Edward Windus, via the British Library.

I tasked myself with saying one or two things I know about grief and loss and why so many people feel the compulsion to write through them. As an essential motivation for writing, especially poetry, loss events appear to make us both speechless and verbose. I’ve been there, I keep being there. I’ve written a “grief book” a few times now and frankly, I can’t say I find that its product is catharsis or repair. Irritatingly circular, I’d describe it instead — a marathon in a six-inch arena. So hence this task: what do I think I know about loss and its insatiable relation to poetry? I start with an exercise of grammar.

I lost my pen.
I lost my father.
I lost my mind.

A loss is a change in the relationship between a subject and an object, a change that the subject is likely to associate with interruption, distance, and breakage. That probably feels too vague or analytical to capture loss as we’ve felt it in moments of utter devastation, which seem to become more common as our lives go on. But it’s the only definition that can capture what’s shared between the loss of a pen, the loss of a parent, the loss of the mind, and so on. “I lost my pen” says the pen is still there, but no longer found or had; “I lost my father” says the father is still known, but now unavailable, incommunicado, passed away; “I lost my mind” says the mind is there, but uncontrollable, unexpected.

We might say that this means each loss is deeply “personal,” but that would be undermining how much our losses seep into everything so indiscriminately. Instead, what this all means is that I can never with any reliability tell you that your loss is too small to be grievable or too big to be manageable. Trust me, people will make such claims in the wake of your loss, but all they are really saying is something about their relationship to your loss, or their relationship to their own prior losses. People will say “it’s just a” dog, house, friendship, car, idea, memory, or sibling, you name it, as if this isn’t exactly the condition for this set of sometimes brutal emotions that accompany your loss. Just a dog? Yes, it’s my dog! That’s the problem!, you might think in defense, but really, you’re both missing the point. You’ve experienced a change in the relationship between you and some object, and now your reaction to that loss is spilling over beyond that first relationship and into everything else. Hence, the compulsion of others to regulate your grief, to make you feel better, worse, to make you stop talking about it or finally open up.

That everyone else lives with your grief is sometimes precisely what is so unbearable about grief. Grief is the emotional and affective registers experienced with regard to a loss. It’s everything from explicitly missing something, to your newfound inability to finish work you once easily could, to the knot in your stomach when you think of certain things, to the realization in the wake of your loss that you never really liked that person — that TV show, that job, that hair color — in the first place. Grief doesn’t necessarily come only in the wake of a loss, as we grieve things even when we speculate about what it might feel to lose something, clinging to it for dear life. “Never leave me,” you might say to a lover, as the feeling that you don’t know what you would do without them is in fact part of your grief for them, already begun.

Your grief never ends; that’s the bad news. In fact, it’s the worst news. As much as your therapist or your friends and family support you, hope for you, deny you, or tell you to get over it, there will never come a time at which your grief process is complete. This doesn’t mean that you’ll always be obsessed with your loss in the way you are in its early aftermath, nor that your feelings about it will be persistent and unending. You’ll simply learn as you go how to temporarily assimilate your loss into what it means for you to be alive now, in this world where your loss lives with you. You get a new pen, you focus on your other loved ones, you get on some new meds — you tell yourself it was meant to be, you find happiness again in other things, you feel that lost thing is still with you somehow. You learn all this in part because of your own working it over, in part because of some mix of boredom and desperation with regards to the endurance of your hurt, in part because your social circles insist it’s time to move on now, in part because you have to show up for someone or something that needs you.

The reason I said this assimilation is temporary is that loss is always somewhat dislodged from its griever, moving into more or less crooked relation over time. Instead of “getting better” or “getting used to it,” grief is constantly surprising, returning anew or changing shape when you least expect it and when you most expect it. Grief is like Menelaus’s grip on the shapeshifting Proteus, where he holds Proteus as long as he can so that he can properly interrogate him. But in the myth, Proteus gets tired and gives Menelaus the answers he is looking for. Grief will give plenty of answers along the way, but it never gets tired of shapeshifting. The aging immigrant, now many decades in the country they moved to but still talking to anyone who will listen about their home country, knows this as much as the adult who, just before falling asleep one night, thinks of a childhood friend who he failed to keep in touch with.

Allow me to say this all in a more direct way: loss is a change in form; grief is the emotional life and afterlife of changes in form. How do I know any of this, or why do I think I know any of this? Well, first, because of my father’s death by brain cancer when I was eleven and its continued manifestations more than a decade-and-a-half on. Second, because I am a person living in a time of mass extinction, a time when scientists estimate that human action has caused the death of 66 percent of life on Earth in the last fifty years, which is not to mention the number of human displacements resulting from the effects of climate change. And third, I am a poet. Poetry is a genre forever at the forefront of thinking about being in a form, and loss’s promiscuous and unbearable formalism is one of poetry’s lodestones. By poetic “form,” I mean the structure of organization of the poem, the shape of its meaning-making both on the page and aloud, and the internal architecture of the relationships between its signifying pieces. Being in a form, inhabiting form, changing from one form to another, weaponizing one form against another, salvaging a form for a moment and then condemning it in another: these are poetry’s great tools. Poetry — in ways that other literary and cultural forms can do, too, but just not as consistently and obsessively — has a capacity to do death, loss, grief, damage assessment, the wake (a la Christina Sharpe), scale, recovery, care, aftermath, newness, the ecological thought (a la Timothy Morton), shapeshifting, and the continued valuation of life after loss. To do them: I mean to enchant them and to disenchant them, to reveal and obscure something about them, to think through them towards an undefined something. In poetry, grief might be what makes us continue, and that might be what hurts the most.

Allow me somebody else’s voice to say this about grief, form, and poetry in a new way:

Missing Persons
Rae Armantrout

God and Mother
went the same way.


What’s a person to us
but a contortion
of pressure ridges
long after she is gone?


 A thin old man in blue jeans,
back arched, grimaces
at the freezer compartment.


Lying in the tub,
I’m telling them —
the missing persons —
that a discrepancy
is a pea
and I am a Princess.[1

In the second section of Rae Armantrout’s Versed, this poem connects the loss of the Mother, the loss of God, and the speculative loss of oneself in the description of “pressure ridges” remaining after death. These pressure ridges are formal discrepancies, irritations, lingering feelings (the Andersonian pea bruising the back of the princess), enduring contours made from the impression of a now-lost shape. Here, loss appears as an evacuated but still “palpable” form, an irritatingly present absence, a concave container for something that both goes and remains. In the bathtub, whose concave shape mimics the “pressure ridges” of loss and the em-dashes that surround “the missing persons,” Armantrout’s speaker reveals the titular pun of the poem: she is “missing” persons who are “missing”; she is simultaneously addressing someone and talking to herself. Maybe this is the reason for Armantrout’s insistence, “I’m telling them — the missing persons —,” to fend off the idea that her cross-afterlife address is looking more and more like someone just talking to themselves in the bathtub. A hurtful principle of grief writing: it’s self-talk disguised as apostrophe.

This is, regardless of Armantrout’s experimentalism, a classic grief poem on a standard sense of loss (the death of a parent). But, in the spirit of my initial exercise in grammar, let me open this to a different sense of our operative verb:

from “VIA: 48 Dante Variations
Caroline Bergvall

8. Half-way upon the journey of our life,
     I found myself within a gloomy wood,
     By reason that the path direct was lost.

(Pollock, 1854)

9. Half-way upon the journey of our life
     I roused to find myself within a forest
     In darkness, for the straight way had been lost.

(Johnson, 1915)

10. In middle of the journey of our days
       I found that I was in a darksome wood
       the right road lost and vanished in the maze

(Sibbald, 1884)

11. In midway of the journey of our life
      I found myself within a darkling wood,
      Because the rightful pathway had been lost.

(Rossetti, 1865)

12. In our life’s journey at its midway stage
      I found myself within a wood obscure
      Where the right path which guided me was lost

(Johnston, 1867)

13. In the middle of the journey
      of our life
      I came to myself
      In a dark forest
      The straightforward way

(Schwerner, 2000)

14. In the middle of the journey of our life I came to
      myself in a dark wood, for the straight road was lost

(Durling, 1996)


In “VIA,”Caroline Bergvall collects and arranges forty-seven translations of the opening tercet of Dante’s Inferno, immersing the reader in the opening disorientation of Dante’s woods, the literal loss of “the way” of a journey, infinitely delaying the relief of new direction that motivates the original poem’s entire narrative. Under Bergvall’s conceptual contract, we simmer in our lostness; we begin and end “in the middle of the journey.” The text of the translations themselves becomes like the background of woods, slightly and often only negligibly differentiated, blocking the way to the original text’s narrative. Both rigidly formal and verbally hypnotic, the poem’s citations and numbering define without disturbing the trance of the poem’s repetitions. Dante’s smarrita, variously translated as “lost,” as “vanished,” as “gone astray,” as “missing,” makes for a strange bedfellow to Bergvall’s heavily guided conceptual structure: though the direct path has gone astray in the original, in Bergvall’s remediation we aren’t allowed to stray from this environment of lostness. What’s deeply appealing about Bergvall’s form is how this disorientation turns into linguistic and readerly pleasure. But also, we might, as contemporary readers living in times of great deforestation and the fragile apportioning of nature preserves, think that what is pleasurable about lingering in Dante’s opening lines is the chance to be with the Earthly woods, the chance to align ourselves with the forest’s natural disorientation instead of the prescribed path of the road. In Bergvall’s poem, lostness and the natural ecology are united in the pleasure of the text. Loss here is shaped like the only-slightly-distinguished trees, like going-on without going-there. No “after”-life, no direct path, just the middle of life, just the darksome woods; to be lost is to live and vice-versa.

These are two thematically divergent poems that arrive from the same premise: that loss is a thing of form. Thinking with these two poems, alongside Bergvall’s DRIFT, Douglas Kearney’s Patter, SUPERFLEX’s film Kwassa Kwassa, CA Conrad’s “Sharking the Birdcage,” Orchid Tierney’s “Gallipoli Diaries,” and Raquel Salas Rivera’s The Tertiary, I wrote my book Losing Miami (The Accomplices, 2019) from the same premise. Losing Miami was an attempt to conceive of the potential loss of Miami due to climate change–related sea level rise. Though grieving in the future conditional tense was its primary emergency, the book arguably does much more work on how the language system of Cuban exile cultures in Miami makes for a particular kind of anxious belonging there. What made these two issues, Miami’s sinking and Miami’s language, feel related, or feel like I couldn’t account for one without accounting for the other, was the realization that to lose Miami to sea level rise would create a mass displacement of its populace, one that would mirror how its populace was already the result of a series of displacements. The city’s very form of being is loss. And so, the question quickly became not what would we lose if we lost Miami, but how did we come to feel that Miami could be something lost in the first place? What does it mean to make a home in loss?

Between all these thematic questions, I have to admit that a much less analytical emotional site came forward: the death of my father. It’s all over Losing Miami, though perhaps not in ways too obvious to a reader who doesn’t know me personally. It’s an old hurt, one that doesn’t make me emotional to talk about or think about generally, but that, as I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, seems to invade everything, seems to transform in unexpected ways as I keep getting older, seems to define all my interactions with and orientations to the world. The great power wielded by this “event” is its capacity to make me feel different from others, to feel simultaneously like the basis of my constitution and the basis of my dissolution. It doesn’t “haunt” me, it underlies and undermines me. Reading Losing Miami aloud often makes me sad, but I’m usually not getting sad about this present and future problem of Miami’s sinking; I’m usually just getting caught up in the things that have happened to me, about how sometimes it doesn’t feel heroic to keep going after loss, to build something new out of devastation, sometimes it just feels bad. Sometimes, it just hurts to know that I was forced to choose between falling apart and moving on.

My most recent book, Madness (Nightboat Books, 2022), is about one possible middle term between falling apart and moving on. Madness is formed as the selected poems for a fictional poet, a gay Cuban exile born in the ’70s who dies in the near-futural 2035 named Luis Montes-Torres, who just can’t seem to find satisfaction or ease in his ongoing life. He’s affected by blanketing depression, lingering anxiety, and resilient obsession, mixed with genuinely optimistic awe at the natural world and a strong sense of attachment to loved ones, his dog, his identities, and to poetry. The “madness” of this book isn’t some dramatic, Gothic madness, but Lu’s slow-going, disappointing, and often-infuriating attempts to make a world he is genuinely attached to satisfy him in the face of the ordinary political horrors of Unitedstatesian life. The book is a partner to Losing Miami’s attempts to conceive of atmospheric, cultural, and environmental losses, but where Losing Miami is an experiment in how to think, Madness is an attempt to recognize and aestheticize what hurts about keeping going in the face of these enormous, daily losses. In Madness’s near-future, climate change continues to make certain forms of life increasingly vulnerable or untenable, the unassimilable losses of immigration continue to poke at the assimilating immigrant, and most of us just keep on living. I often feel that keeping on living in this atmosphere of loss of our contemporary United States feels like madness. Lu was my attempt at narrating this. For him, what brings the most relief is also what is being lost the most: he calms himself by staring at increasingly damaged and damaging oceans, he relieves stress by meditating at an increasingly narrowed state park, his flâneurism is strained by smoky skies. In light of the inability of his awe at the natural world to assimilate with incoherent manmade agony, Lu can only become more obsessive, more anxious, more depressive. He wants a world he is watching himself lose. I placed this narrative at a nested and conceptual distance (the fictional selected poems for a fictional poet) as a way of emphasizing the book as a study of forms, both poetic and social.

What I am trying to say is that my recent poetic work has been an attempt to think of recovery (endurance, healing, repair) not as moves away from loss’s devastation, but as devastation’s commission. I don’t think of the poetry of loss or the compulsion to write in the wake of loss as cathartic, heroic, therapeutic, though it can be these things; instead, I think of it as evidence that our living is our loss, and our loss is our living. This is why we continue to do it, why we write in the speechlessness of grief: the formalism of loss events commissions our engagement in forms of living, in poetry, in going on.

1. Rae Armantrout, Versed (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009) 89.