my review of "ten poems to say goodbye" by Roger Housden

ten poems to say goodbye
by Roger Housden
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Several weeks ago a nice lady sent me an email asking if I’d like to review a new poetry book. “Free book? Awesome,” the little voice in my head said. A week later I received Roger Housden’s new book, ten poems to say goodbye. It’s a lovely hardcover: warm yellow background with a serene flower in a simple blue bowl beneath the title. I put it on my desk and there it sat while my life suddenly zoomed from leisurely to INSANE. I looked at it often. It seemed like such a pretty little book. I wanted to read it so badly, but I had no time.

Today I finally managed to open it, mostly because I have bronchitis and I can’t actually walk anywhere without getting out of breath. I couldn’t even get the mail without reaching for my inhaler. Yesterday I landed in the emergency room, chest tight, head spinning. Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about poetry. I was watching all the other people in the waiting room, most much sicker than I. When I opened Housden’s book today, I wasn’t expecting it to resonate so thoroughly. My hospital visit certainly contributed to my emotional suprise, but there was more to it than that—

This past weekend I helped clear out my mother-in-law’s apartment (she has multiple sclerosis and has had to move to a full-time care facility). It was strange packing up the mementoes of her life. She is an artist and some of the things we had to fold into boxes were her drawings and paintings. Some of it was old poetry. Some was just forgotten scraps of paper hidden in corners. Once the detritus was cleared away only the most luminous memories of what makes her her survived. My mother-in-law is doing okay, working hard with a physical therapist to keep herself strong, but oddly, the very beginning of the book made me think of her so forcibly I had to stop and just breathe for a moment. Housden’s introduction was like a cold draft of air that suddenly cleared away all the old leaves in my head and left me with his simple mantra: “great poetry reaches down into the depths of our humanity and captures the very essence of our experience.”

I’ve been writing poetry for decades. Critiquing, reviewing, and editing it for nearly as long. Strangely, I had forgotten what it is to be simply a reader. Housden’s book opens with one of the most straightforward explanations of why poetry matters and always will. Poetry captures humanity and “delivers it up in exactly the right words.” The introduction explains why he put this book together, a sort of mini-poetry-anthology. The book gives us ten poems to ponder. Each is accompanied by an essay where he considers the poem, explains why it is important to him, and why it has meaning for others. The poems detail the act of saying goodbye. Through our lives we say goodbye to people, things, and the more amorphous stuff of life. This book reminded me of why poetry is the essential tool of the mind and heart for doing so.

Some of the poems in the book are ones I know and some I’ve read often. “The Lost Hotels of Paris” by Jack Gilbert (I adore Gilbert’s poetry) and “How It Will Happen, When” by Dorianne Laux are two that I’ve seen before. Others were new to me: poems by Ellen Bass, Gerald Stern, Rilke, and more. For some of the poems Housden offers a short biography of the poet to explain to the reader how astonishing the poem truly is, especially as it relates to the poet’s life (he mentions Gilbert’s encroaching dementia to great effect). In others, he remarks on how well a particular poet writes the poetry of humanity. With every poem, however, Housden manages to illuminate the lines and words so that even the most novice reader will understand and appreciate what is happening. The act of reading the poem makes it real.

It’s been years since I’ve read poems like this. Oh, not poems of goodbye or realization or any of the usual human foibles, but rather, it’s been years since I’ve read poems with my writerly eyes stripped away. I try to consider the reader when I am writing, always and of course, but it’s been ages since I truly understood what it’s like to come to a piece of art, innocent and yearning. Housden somehow manages to capture that essence and give it back to you with his essays. He deciphers the poems without taking away from them. Instead he gifts them to the reader with a sort of step ladder that reaches to the top of those towers of words. The remarkable thing is that he does it without imposing himself onto the poem.

This brings me back to the beginning, when I consider what it’s been like to have to stop moving (literally) directly after spending a weekend moving someone else’s life into boxes. Housden said in the introduction, “. . . the fullness of life escapes us either way, whether we are holding on or pushing away. . .” I have had to both stop and say goodbye in the space of a week. My mother-in-law is even now struggling with the same idea. Housden insists that poetry can help us with this. “Well, yeah,” I think, paging through the book. Inevitably, I stop on page 46 and read the closing lines of Jack Gilbert’s poem:

“. . . We see the memory
of when they were, once upon a time.
And that too is more than enough.”

Housden’s delightful collection of ten poems, one for every kind of goodbye I can imagine, is definitely a book I would recommend. Both writers and readers will enjoy the gorgeous poetry, some of which I have read and loved for years (selections from Gilbert, Laux, Rilke, and others). Housden’s insightful thoughts about the poems illuminate the lines with a joy I didn’t expect in a book that documents the act of leaving and letting go. His essays and these ten poems reminded me that “. . . our life of the senses and feelings and thoughts, it all matters after all.” Especially when saying goodbye.

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