The Man Who Got Away: Poems

  • Grace Cavalieri
  • New Academia Publishing/Scarith
  • 94 pp.
  • Reviewed by Merrill Leffler
  • November 8, 2014

A poet writes of life with her husband, and of life after he is gone.

“Losing is a keepsake to remember. / If we give up loss, what will we have left.”

— “The Man in the Machine”

In 1993, Grace Cavalieri included “Foot Above Tears” in her book Poems, New and Selected. It ends with this stanza:

My happiness will go on without you
as yours will without me,
oh sure we would rather have loved than not
but the habitual order of things
kept us in our place until
we passed through each other and
we’ll never quite recover from that.

Twenty years later, on January 15, 2013, Ken Flynn, Grace’s husband of 60 years — the “you” of this poem — was dead, suddenly, from “complications of pneumonia.”

The Man Who Got Away is an intense collection of poems that gives us the poet’s grieving voice over the long days of learning to live alone — at least in body. Of the 58 poems here, 24 are from eight previous collections going back to 1975, and all relate to her relationship with Ken; 34 were written in the months since Ken’s death.

“The old pain in the chest comes / over me and I can’t breathe/ knowing one of us will leave / the other first and / I try not think about it,” Grace wrote in “They Live Where Death Never Reaches” (1998), “instead think of tomorrow...just us two together growing older, / and never dying, the thought / of it keeping me alive.”

Death is a reality, but in the fullness of one’s life, it is still an abstraction and, for a poet, a trope. But not so in 2013 in “The Day They Gave Husband Away”: “The chill comes through the room / pushing the curtain aside / People are hugging outside laughing / asking for a ride / They don’t know someone is dying / The curtains are red, the color of blood / blood lost from the / body’s thirst.”  

In a brief preface, Grace writes, “Each poem is a note in a diary of loss. The words ‘dead’ and ‘death’ appear more than I would otherwise allow in my writing but honest emotions called these poems forth.”

The agitation and panic, the stunned awareness, the abandonment and aloneness — these are feelings the poems here give form to. For the poet, the making of them is cathartic and consoling, at least until dread arises yet again, along with the need to encounter it with words once more.

Nearly all the 34 poems written following Ken’s death are in second person, addressing him directly, or in first-person singular and plural.

“There you sit in the open cockpit / I never saw such a smile” (“1952”); “Do you remember the trip we took north through Newark” (“Dear Ken in an Orange Sweater”); and “15 days now you are attached to tubes that breathe, head back / while in my dream I wear the satin dress / you bought me” (“The Man in the Machine”).

The critic Hugh Kenner spoke of the poem as a poet’s act of attention evoking ours. What does this book evoke for us with its unremitting poems of loss and grief?

There is no definitive answer — I can only speak for myself. I believe that when poems are honest in their directness, stripping away pieties and clichés and illusions, they bring us into the presence of truth and a relationship with the poem and with the poet. In that relationship is the prospect of communion, empathy, companionship, love.

“The Sun on the Cat” is the final poem in the book. Its extended meditation, 200 lines in variable-length stanzas, is uncharacteristic of Grace’s poetry.  It is a plain-language reflection that looks back to courtship, marriage, children: that nostalgic feeling of wanting the past restored.

“I want to go back to raising the children where the twins want to stay home from school / wearing red satin dresses… / and on the table would be a roast lamb / with candles around it for / when he’d come home.”

But the poem doesn’t end there — it comes back to the present, to the cat that is driving the poet crazy: “All / he wants to do is be held, knocking pictures / off the dresser, next the lamp he pushed off / so I held him.”

And in this act of writing — or, let’s say, making — she is brought, as are we, to a sudden awareness, and with it, temporal as it may be, to a transcendent calm:  

I looked out and I saw
how good and true the dark is,
how it never lets us down, showing up again and again,
every single night,
how it is fair to everyone, rich and poor alike
and how much,
how very much it makes me love the sky.
Because it will always be there.

[Editor's note: Grace Cavalieri writes the monthly "Poetry Exemplars" feature for the Independent.]

Merrill Leffler's recent book of poetry is Mark the Music. The publisher of Dryad Press, he lives in Takoma Park, Maryland, where he is that city's poet laureate.

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