Let’s be real. Grief is as much about what’s left behind—what’s left unsaid—as what goes on and leaves us here. In her new collection of poetry, How to Love the Empty Air, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz explores the space between us and our memories of and feelings for those we love, and how that “empty air” informs our experience of grief.
When I received the pitch for this book, I leapt at the chance, because I loved Aptowicz’s The Year of No Mistakes. But then I realized the subject matter, and realized just how gut-wrenching of a poetry collection this would be for me to read.
In short, this collection is beyond describable in its ability to communicate the reality of grief—that grief is as much about the open space in our memories we keep for the people we lost, but also about the way we choose to preserve memories, even if gaps exist in them. It feels as though, once we lose a person, we doubt every memory we have. Is this right? Did this happen? Did it happen this way? In “Portraits of My Mother, Far Away From Texas,” Aptowicz touches on the idea of memories being the things we choose to focus on vs. the truth of them. She changes the caller ID photo for her mother because “Now when she calls, / I see the version of her she wants: her grinning, like a criminal, / barely holding it together…” Aptowicz’s love for her mother shines in each poem about her mother, losing her mother, and all of the many events that occur after—events that seem less full, more numb, as she describes grief “like a wave you cannot out swim, so you dive / into it because it feels like the safest choice.” The trick, it seems Aptowicz is saying, is learning how to ride the waves as well as we can without letting them drown us, and about finding the memories that keep our loved ones alive long after they’ve left us.
There is a subdued ache in some of the poems written about her mother before her passing, and in “After Telling My Parents Via Skype, My Mother Sends Me an Email,” Aptowicz creates a sense of distance between her and her mother, even though they are close. The means of communication, Skype and email, establish a foundation for the permanent distance losing a loved one creates.
Other poems, such as “To My Mother Whose Body is Trying to Kill Her,” are downright devastating. She speaks directly to her ill mother, “Mom, are you listening? All you have to do / is stay. Get through this.” Several poems like this leave you with nothing at the end but a feeling of rawness, of being gutted. Even if you have not yet lost a parent, the pathos is inescapable and white-hot in its purity.
Along with discussing her mother and her mother’s passing, a fair number of the pieces are about Aptowicz’s own writing journey, and those are as elucidating and crisp as those about grief. She writes of her own poems:
All you have to do is
make sense of it all,
I say to myself,
All you have to do
is love it enough not to want
to throw it on that fire.
Truly, the act of writing can become a crucible for all of us, and so many times I know I’ve wished to throw every bit of my writing into a fire. Her poems about writing, to me, are as much about refusing to give credence to that terrible doubter, impostor syndrome, as they are about celebrating writing:
It is where I will start
being who I am supposed to be.
It is where I find out just
who that is.
To share more lines would ruin the collection, I feel, and so I’ll stop here. But to say that this collection left me feeling like I’d been punched in the gut and heart is an understatement.