Poems of grief and gratitudeby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
Duluth, Minn. — Tomorrow night some 20 poets from around the country will gather at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis to read poems about grief, mourning - and celebration.
The event is to mark the publication of "Beloved on the Earth," a new collection of poems from Duluth based Holy Cow Press. The book is already finding fans outside the poetry world.
Beloved on the Earth" is a book which arose from a specific need.
Jim Perlman lost his mother two years ago. As a poetry editor he naturally sought out poems to help him through a difficult time. He found some, but it struck him there was no collection available that filled his need to grieve his loss, and celebrate the life of his mother.
As the founder of Holy Cow Press, Perlman decided to do something about that.
"So we put out a public call for manuscript submissions," he said. "And over two or three months we received work from 695 poets from all over the country and over seas and that totaled about 2,000 poems"
It was overwhelming, but then three of Perlman's friends, Deborah Cooper, Mara Hart and Pamela Mittlefehldt, stepped in. They are all writers and teachers and they helped him work through the pile.
They threw in a few extra poems by other writers they came upon elsewhere. Even with four of them it still took a year to read them all. Yet Deborah Cooper said selecting the poems for the book wasn't hard.
"We all read every single poem and then we rated it," she said. "And when we got together to go through the poetry we had enough poems that we had all given the top rating to."
The final compilation contains 150 poems. The editors stress that many of the poems they didn't choose were excellent, but they dealt only with the loss of one specific person.
What they were looking for was work which, while possibly referring to an individual, has a larger scope, specifically grief and gratitude. Pamela Mittlefehldt said the gratitude for the life of deceased friend or relative is very important.
"And for me one of the things I looked for in the poems was how do you do that?" Mittlefehldt said. "How do you celebrate in the midst of grief? How do you honor a life when you are so devastated by its loss? And I think these poems do that very powerfully."
When asked to select a favorite, Jim Perlman doesn't hesitate. He chooses "Late Fragment," a poem Raymond Carver wrote shortly before his own death.
"And did you get what you wanted from this life?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved.
To feel myself beloved on this earth."
The collection gets its name from the poem's last line.
Pamela Mittlefehldt chooses a poem by Lisel Mueller about how hard it is to mourn at the height of summer when everything is teaming with life.
"I sat on a gray stone bench
ringed with the ingenue faces
of pink and white impatiens
and placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me."
"Beloved on the Earth" arrived in bookstores a few weeks ago, but Perlman said he's hearing it's already being used by local clergy in Duluth both for funeral services, and as an aid and comfort for grieving families.
Pamela Mittlefehldt said the book is also going further afield.
"I've given it to my doctors and they have started using it," she said. I think, as Jim says, this book speaks to such a wide audience."
The book is now featured on the Web site of the American Hospice Foundation.
Holy Cow Press is now arranging readings around the country, including tomorrow's event at the Loft in Minneapolis.
Jim Perlman said it was only after they had been offered the Friday night date that they realized it was Sept. 11.
At first they wondered whether they should do it. Then, in the spirit of the book, Perlman said they decided it was an opportunity to take the grief and sorrow in the aftermath of the attacks and try to turn them into something more positive.
"Maybe we can make something of all of that grief and sorrow that we feel for that day into something perhaps more positive," he said. "Or even into gratitude. We'll see."
The "Beloved on the Earth" editors say working with these poems for so long has been an intense experience, and they have become very close as a result. For Perlman, whose mother's passing set this all in motion, it's been an important lesson.
"I've found a sense of healing that comes from knowing you are not alone in grieving a loss," he said.
It's a message all the editors of "Beloved on the Earth" hope many people will hear.
- All Things Considered, 09/10/2009, 4:55 p.m.