Luther Hughes’ You Smell Like Outside: It Was Like This
“You Smell Like Outside” is Luther Hughes’ wonderful column for Frontier where he seeks to answer the question every month: can poetry help us with our real, day-to-day life? For September, he’s exploring how to grieve.
It Was Like This: You Were Happy
In an interview, I was asked about grief and my grieving process. Here’s what I said:
It’s funny. I’ve been thinking about grief a lot lately in the past few days because I’ve been trying to (re)write this poem about my dog’s death that happened about thirteen years ago. I’ve been trying to write this poem for maybe five years now. And it’s weird because this is the only poem that I haven’t been able to write. Eventually, poems give themselves up to me, or, as someone once said, I’ve found my way into. But this poem about my dog’s death evades me to the point of self-doubt. And this is what happens every time I try to write this poem.
This time around, I was tempted when I was walking to work, and I read a sign that said, “This house harvests rainwater.” And suddenly, I was grieving my dog, Beethoven. This is how I think of grief. I don’t believe anyone is ever done grieving. I think grief comes when you least expect it.
The truth about grief, for me, is that its meaning, the process, escapes me. Why did a sign talking about rain bring me to my dog’s death? I don’t know. And perhaps that is all grief/grieving is: random things pulling you back into that state of sadness, of somberness. It’s weird, if you ask me, what grief does to the mind. Since that day, the dog in my apartment complex has been a little louder, its bark a little clearer. I returned to the poem only to remove it from my manuscript. It’s not ready. And maybe it’ll never be ready. Or, at least, maybe it’s too big for the landscape of a poem.
Here’s what happened: I was in the living room. My mom was in the kitchen cooking. Beethoven was where he always was, out back tied to the fence. He was an old dog. How old, I couldn’t tell you. My memory blurs a little here, but the upstairs neighbors poured hot water onto Beethoven. I say my memory blurs because I’m not sure, anymore, if I actually saw that happen or if my mom told me. It doesn’t matter. She ran outside and told me not to move. I didn’t. I watched her pet him. I watched her put her ear to his mouth. I watched his belly slow. I watched him die.
Listen, it’s a dog. I know. I can’t tell you why I’ve been so wrecked by this. I don’t know why I’ve tried writing this poem for the past five years. All I can say is that I’m grieving and maybe I haven’t been given the chance to grieve because I was so young.
I think poetry operates, somewhat, on this level. Sometimes it takes a few times, some distance, some work to understand how a poem works. Likewise, grief. One day, it just happens. One day, the poem just clicks. In this way, I think both poetry and grief can be horrifying. In this way, we are not safe.
Perhaps I’m being too dramatic, but when I was walking to work, I saw a sign and suddenly I was grieving.
In “It Was Like This: You Were Happy” by Jane Hirshfield, she writes:
It was like this:
you were happy, then you were sad,
then happy again, then not.
It went on.
For the first three lines of the poem, there is a seesaw-like motion between happy and sad. It doesn’t say what causes this up and down, and I don’t think the reason needs to be specified. In fact, the erasure of the reason possibly hints that causality doesn’t matter, but what does matter is the effect. Or, that the effect is all that is remembered. Notice, too, that the entirety of the round (defining “round” as feeling both happy and sad at least once) takes its own line, suggesting that there was nothing else but this back and forth between grief and release(?). The stanza break clues us into a possible break from the seesaw. But, there isn’t a break. “It went on.”
I said before that grief is ongoing. I believe that. I also believe that grief can look different at different points in our lives. Growing up, the grief for my dog may have manifested as repression. And now my grief manifests as—well, I don’t know. I want to say obsession. A friend tells me the reason why I’m so obsessed with death is because of this incident.
In the same interview, for the same question, I address my poem about Trayvon Martin, the 17-year old boy killed in Stanford, FL in 2012. Here’s what I said:
When I am impacted by death, like I was by Travyon Martin’s death, it’s overwhelming. It’s all I can think about. When Trayvon died and the audio from that night was released, I was obsessed.
I believe I was able to write poems about Trayvon Marin (and others) is because I have a clear understanding of how his death made me feel. In this way, I’m able to grieve properly. After George Zimmerman wasn’t indicted, I, like others across the country, took to the streets. We marched downtown. We yelled. We cried. We were angry.
I’m still angry.
I turn to the last lines of “Sorrow Is Not My Name” by Ross Gay. Not out of anger, but to look at a different way of grieving:
But look; my niece is running through a field
calling my name. My neighbor sings like an angel
and at the end of my block is a basketball court.
I remember. My color’s green. I’m spring.
Actually, I wonder if these last lines should be considered as “grieving” or if they are saying, “I refuse to let grief/sorrow haunt me,” because of the restorative last line: “I remember. My color’s green. I’m spring.” “Green” and “spring” taking the poem to growth and, perhaps, abundance—moving on. Or, is the refusal of sorrow a different way to grieve? I think both are true.
I think wanting to find happiness, something to keep us going in a sea of death and sorrow, is part of the grieving process— “my niece is running through a field / calling my name. My neighbor sings like an angel.” We—I—want to both keep hold of my obsessions with death and at the same time remember there’s joy, that there can be both joy and grief in the body.
I ended my last post talking about joy and where to find it…
Right this second, my mom is braiding the hair of the boy from downstairs. On the table there is a jar of coconut oil, half-empty. She offers him a glass of water.
Luther Hughes is a Seattle native and author of Touched (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018). He is the Founding Editor in Chief of The Shade Journal and Executive Editor for The Offing. A Cave Canem fellow and a columnist for Frontier Poetry, his work has been published or is forthcoming in various journals including, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New England Review, TriQuartlery, Four Way Review, and others. Luther received his MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. You can follow him on Twitter @lutherxhughes. He thinks you are beautiful.