It takes me a long time to write a book. Whether it’s poems or a novel, I feel like I’m at it over a lifetime. Death Becomes Us contains poems written mostly after my late husband died, and during that time I read a lot of books that helped me to heal. Survival wells inside us all, and whether a book is exploring how to survive life or death, it is comforting to read other writers’ experiences with that survival.
Here are a few books that I read that helped provide me with context, with compassion, as I grappled with my own loss.
St. Boniface Elegies, by Catherine Hunter
I find something strangely intimate in reading poems that are set in my hometown. This lovely volume of poetry, separated into four sections, explores death and loss with a gentle humour, all the while describing places I know well but feel I have never seen properly. Hunter has a clear vision, and is a master at depicting the scene. Her writing puts me in mind of the director of a movie, walking around with a whirring camera, capturing images with precision, each given its own moment, its own life.
Stranger, by David Bergen
This beautifully written novel uses the story of a Central American woman giving birth to an American’s son as a motif for the rape and pillage that the United States (and Canada, let’s not be smug) have exerted over the Latin American nations. It does not preach, however, and Bergen is a master of telling the tale of survival through the kindness of strangers, as this woman travels to the US to reclaim her child and her honour.
Sweetland, by Michael Crummy
This book makes me long for travel again, to be able to visit the islands of Canada, and in particular, Newfoundland. My late husband and I cycled around Prince Edward Island and the archipelago of the Madeleine Islands but I have yet to see for myself the stark and savage beauty of Newfoundland. There, Crummy’s main character, who harbours some secret about his past, also harbours the desire to remain on an island that is being “discontinued” by the government, with offers of re-settlement to all of the locals. In refusing to move, the main character reveals a stubbornness that is inside us all, a deep desire to survive at all costs.
Small Beneath the Sky, by Lorna Crozier
“When I touched it, the tree touched back.” Crozier explores her childhood living in Saskatchewan in this memoir with honesty. Writing honestly is the hardest thing, but in Crozier’s hands it appears easy. Like watching an elite athlete, or a genius musician. Effortless writing that encapsulates the length and breadth of the prairies. Breathtaking.
To the River: Losing My Brother, by Don Gillmor
I cracked this book with some trepidation: I have personal memories of the death of David Gillmor that I did not want to be usurped by someone else’s story (even his brother’s). In the end, it is a book I am grateful to have read. I laughed out loud at bizarre moments in the life of the Gillmor family, and cast myself fondly into place listening to pucks hit the boards at the Wildwood Community hockey rinks. Don’s sensitive, deeply thoughtful recount of what it means to lose someone with whom you were once knit tight, what it means to evolve in the lives of others, and why suicide is forgivable, is fully deserving of the Governor General’s Award. Everyone knows someone who has, or is about to, commit suicide. Everyone should read this book.
Departures, by Dennis Cooley
Dennis Cooley is known as the adorable punster, a lover of language and the twists and turns it creates when played like an instrument. But in Departures, Cooley’s writing is exposed, left ragged and full of images soaked in poison from a burst appendix. “who will we be when we are new” pleads the poet, trying to come to terms with the constant presence of death, the constant pressure of survival.
The Break, Katherena Vermette
I felt cheated by this book, in some ways, but it was only after I was finished reading it that I realized that is exactly what Vermette intended: for me to feel as cheated as each of the characters of her novel must feel. Set in Winnipeg, and facing the reality of life in the North End for those who are not immigrants, but were here first; each of her characters, the innocent and the cruel, have been cheated of so much. A well written novel should create the opportunity for the reader to gain empathy through the eyes of its characters. The Break does precisely that. It’s not a fun read.
Seed Catalogue, by Robert Kroetsch
Anyone who reads my poetry will see a reflection of Robert Kroetsch. What book to better represent the canon of Prairie writing than a long poem about the hefty catalogue that (in pre-internet times) fell on the front step, delivered by the bored mailman? Telling secrets of bounties, ripe crops and sex, all that sex! Anyone who has spent more than one winter on the prairie will understand the humour and insight in “Then it was spring. Or, no:/then winter was ending.”
The Weight of Snow, by Christian Guay-Poliquin
What is it about winter, snow, Canada, and my choice of novels? This is a survival novel, the sort of novel that makes you wonder whether you’ve stored enough tin cans in the pantry. Have you ever noticed how quiet the world becomes when there’s a heavy snowfall? This entire novel is written as if under the weight of all of that snow, quiet, sensuous, desperate, and thoroughly enthralling.
Beginning with halcyon days cast in soft light and cool dew, onward through veiled years of diagnosis and environmental damage, Death Becomes Us captures, with masterful grace and restraint, the intensity of absence and the importance of grief. Within the darkest moments of personal and ecological loss, Kristen Wittman's second collection fashions a garden of love poems from memories of soft kisses and falling towers, a broken Eden where pain nurtures tender, blooming petals, and the ceaseless heartbeat of Mother Nature pulses underfoot, bringing forth every new dawn
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