On the heels of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, it seems appropriate to review a book that I recently finished by a poet whose work I admire. Next Door to the Dead is a reflection on living in an old country church just outside Louisville, Kentucky. Next to the church is an antiquated cemetery. Driskell takes to visiting the “neighbors” which is the basis for this collection of poems. I have heard Kathleen read her poetry aloud and her words can bring a lump to my throat and at times makes me laugh.
I was reading Next Door to the Dead when my father grew ill. I flew to Portland to help the family with Dad’s care and left the book behind. In the crisis that ensued, I forgot all about the book and Driskell’s poems.
Each day, as I drove to visit Dad, the road I took passed by two old cemeteries. Huge maple and oak trees stood sentry over the headstones. The moss-covered grave markers listed with age. I tried not to look at the graves as I drove past, tried to look instead at the autumn brilliance of maple leaves against the blue sky. I did not want to contemplate the inevitable.
Then my father died. And a few days later, our family stood at a different cemetery. This one looked more like a golf course – neat, sunny, and freshly mowed. We left the service both numb and wailing inside with some of Dad’s last words emblazoned in our minds. “Be brave,” he had said. What other choice did we have?
I returned back home to Alaska and suddenly Next Door to the Dead became a whole other realm of reading. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to finish the book. It seemed too soon, too raw to be gallivanting around a graveyard with words. Aren’t some things better left to the quiet?
I picked up the book anyway. Driskell’s poetry is accessible and earthy and, as her poems have in the past, the words gave me pause to consider the beauty and nuance of language. Every word of this book felt like the thump of my heart. Her words brought people to life, gave substance to names and dates, and created a context around lives that had long since passed.
Driskell had been told on purchasing her home that the old cemetery had fallen out of use. So she was astonished when she came home from shopping to discover a hearse and a congregation of mourners next door. In the poem “Living Next to the Dead Acre” she writes:
… I slid in behind the long row of cars
and parked as if I belonged there. I did
My best to hush the rustle of grocery store bags,
to hush my kid trying to kick free
From his car seat. He bleated to be
let loose, to be allowed to join that party.
The poems offer meditations that weave the past with the present and the living with the dead. She also discusses visitors, including birds and deer and the man who mows the grass.
There are poems about the miller’s wife, about the slave girl, the Civil War infantryman, the snake handler, and the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who buried his poetry with his wife. Bereaved, she had died of an overdose following the birth of their stillborn child. Later Rosetti dug the poetry up again.
Rosetti stood by the fogging window
and watched the wet street
for the men’s return. Despite
The storm, it was a good day
For those who had been parted.
While all know the lesson that life must go on, a few had learned
so will love, and others
had learned, so must art.
Rather than finding Next Door to the Dead morbid, even during my own time of grieving, I re-discovered Driscoll’s gift of turning a phrase that packs a wallop while maintaining a sense of humor. She lets us laugh at ourselves even in the shadow of death. That may be one of the best gifts of this book. In her poem “Infant Daughter, Marcus 2 Years Old, Myra 8 Days” she writes:
Among these tiny grave markers, I think of my own
little terrorists, my budding suicide bombers.
They shriek against inoculations, squirm, refusing
spinach on their plates, try to swallow marbles …
Every day, with such joy, they threaten to blow apart my heart so utterly.
In any collection of poetry, I find poems that I connect with deeply and a few whose resonance eludes me. But in this slim volume Next Door to the Dead, I found myself finishing the book and then starting again from the beginning.
It was but a small bravery to pick up this book just a few weeks after my father’s funeral. But the courage and humor of Next Door to the Dead made it worth the persistent lump in my throat.
For more information about Kathleen Driskell and her poetry, please visit her website at: