On Friday night my personal trainer passed away unexpectedly. In this poem I refer to her as a friend, because that’s what she was to me. A personal trainer is ‘personal’, after all.
Grief is hard. Shock paved the way for emptiness. No-one prepared me and there are no guidelines on how to grieve. You don’t expect the life of someone young, fit and healthy to suddenly stop without warning.
As well as the poem itself, ‘This is Your Grief’, I’ve included some notes about the context and how I wrote this poem. I often think that the analysis of poetry is as interesting as the poems themselves, especially if you can gain an insight into the poet’s mind.
It takes thought to write poetry. Every line has meaning, words are chosen deliberately, even punctuation and line breaks are used with careful consideration.
I hope you find my notes and analysis interesting, but if you don’t that’s okay too because writing them has given me a lot of comfort.
This is Your Grief
There is a hole inside me
and I’m covering it with the adage of
‘Life goes on’, hey-ho – it’s not like
on Friday night
my friend died and then it hits me
like a bus between cocktails and haircuts
and discussing the black girl’s use of ‘pussy’
inside the Big Brother house, She’s Dead
But Life –
capital L, we only get one –
We are girls of 2015.
I felt my grief deeply on Facebook
updated about dodgy hearts…
cards, thank yous and funerals
more words, more words but
(no funerals for the Chinese)
and it’d be all wrong wrong wrong, me
turning up in a culturally inappropriately
only a few thousand hours less old than
Her – my remembrances and my poetry
and gawky as my first steps into the
gym and upon a weight machine
Is this grief?
This feeling, this ugly, hard-to-swallow
heaviness of Being
absolutely, absolutely fine when photographed
only to crack
and crack my p-p-pain and stuttering,
embarrassingly snotty grief like eggshells into
scratches and b-b-breaking a wineglass
all the time thinking – I am in a Play.
I am in a play and
sooner, later she’ll call
CUT, lights up! Oh, fuck. Oh FUCK
what is the procedure for waking up at
3:30am, worrying that
your heart is hammering like helicopter blades, too fast – that you could drop
drop drop dead too like that?
Snap! – what is the procedure for
staring at the blank space between
Will and Yos
where she was, once
on a website
with a stiffening in my gut like
being sick, but without the post-hit relief –
What’s the cure for that?
What’s the cure for that?
Notes on ‘This is Your Grief’
There is no right way to grieve. Even some tiny voice inside me keeps saying, why are you so upset? She wasn’t a close friend. Your relationship was based on business: you were a client and your friendlinesses only lasted as long as the working day.
The news of her death came as a complete shock early on Saturday afternoon. All the cliches you’ve ever heard about shock are cliches for a reason, by the way: they’re true. A thunderstorm was rumbling away outside and the connection was awful, and this tinny voice was telling me in Chinglish that my trainer had passed away and the line kept going funny and I lit a cigarette and the smoke made jagged patterns as it rose up into the apartment, I was shaking so much.
When he hung up I started crying but I think it was more shock than sadness: great gulpy gasps that sounded more like laughter than tears. Howls and snivells, convulsions, cigarette after cigarette. It was 1pm and I was still in my pyjamas and already my day was shot to hell. Ruined weekend I thought, pretty guiltily, a phrase used again by my mum and my sister in attempts to use humour to console me. My long weekend was ruined.
There is a hole inside me: the first line of a poem is always hugely important. It sets the tone and character of the whole piece of writing. Sometimes I start with poem titles and then work forwards. The working title of this poem was ‘The Hole’; before I started writing I knew what I really wanted to get across was this peculiar feeling that grief had caused in me, kind of like there was a hole inside but one that wasn’t big enough to make everything else implode, but just big enough to be a constant ache. I could cover the hole with normal, mundane activities – going for a drink with my friends, getting a haircut, watching Big Brother – but the hole was only covered, never plugged or filled in. These mundanities were temporary fixes, and indeed an hour after I learnt of her death I tried to watch Big Brother, not very successfully. Placing her death amongst this mundanity has two purposes: first, it emphasises how out of the blue the news was. Secondly, it hammers home that in the week after her death I have been trying to continue with my ‘life’ and all of it’s trivialities, even though this huge, life-altering occurrence (notice how ‘She’s Dead’ is capitalised – this is not accidental) is interfering with my every thought and action.
Life is also capitalised, something that the poem itself draws attention to (‘Life // – capital L, we only get one – // goes on.’) I have heard the adage that life goes on, and used it myself, many times in the last week. How easy it is to say, but now difficult to put into practise! There is another meaning here too: life goes on for me, the poet, and also for the reader of the poem, but the irony of life not ‘going on’ for my dead friend speaks for itself. It is a bitter piece of comedy. Life doesn’t go on for all of us. Notice too that within the first two stanzas life is mentioned explicitly twice. References to death (‘my friend died’ and ‘She’s Dead’) also appear twice. A neutralizing effect? Not really: I used this to emphasise that while my life continues, her death is equally on my mind.
The mention of social media in stanza 3 draws attention to the nature of our collective grief in 2015. We use social media to express ourselves: grief, traditionally a private expression, becomes public when we make our feelings known. Posting on Facebook invites you to share in my grief, just as writing a poem about the experience does too. Yet I as poet feel conflicted about this – though my grief is felt ‘deeply’ on Facebook, the unnecessary repetition of ‘more words, more words’ that follows hints at how hollow and unsubstantiated I feel that social media as an expression of grief is. Words, especially as statuses, don’t do enough: and in no way do they come close to accurately representing the feeling of grief.
The fourth stanza talks about the cultural differences between myself and my trainer, and how those differences made themselves known when I inquired whether there was a funeral service I could attend and was told that it is not in the Chinese custom to have funerals. Thus the social and cultural divide is emphasised between the narrator and her dead friend. This in turn parallels the huge, underlying difference between them: one is dead and one is alive. Stanza four also hints at my anxiety over the relationship I shared with my personal trainer, and whether it is appropriate for me to even imagine myself at her funeral. The thrice repeated ‘wrong’ and speculations that I’d do something culturally inappropriate in that situation affirm this anxiety and again indicates the huge difference between us.
While much of the fourth stanza is about difference, the line ‘only a few thousand hours less old than / Her’ gestures to a similarity in age, and by doing so highlights my own fears of mortality – it could so easily have been me dying suddenly and unexpectedly – a fear that is reiterated more explicitly later in the poem when I talk about feeling like my heart is beating too fast.
‘only a few thousand hours less old than / Her’ is a clumsy line that sits awkwardly with the rest of the poem, and doesn’t scan well. This is intentional. The following lines ‘my remembrances and my poetry as awkward and gawky as my first steps…’ make knowing allusion to the stilted clumsiness of that line and are metapoetical, as they reference the process of writing the poem. These lines suggest that my grieving process has been similarly clumsy and uncomfortable, and difficult to put into words that fit with the forms of traditional classical poetry. These lines echo too my first uncomfortable experiences in the gym, while ‘first steps’ has hidden layers of meaning: an allusion to wobbly and unsteady ‘baby steps’, as well as the context that these are my ‘first steps’ into the grief of a friend.
The previous stanzas reference my uncertainty regarding my grief – is it appropriate? Can I express it? How should I feel? – uncertainty that is echoed in the first line of stanza five, ‘Is this grief?’ The narrator is questioning how to feel, pleading with the reader to be enlightened. Notice that ‘Being’ is capitalised in the next line; I am referencing how hard ‘Being’, existing, is with this terrible news, as well as using enjambment to run onto the next line. The repetition of ‘absolutely, absolutely’ in ‘absolutely, absolutely fine’ is almost a double negative. The narrator is protesting that she is ‘fine’, but she is not convincing and the reader expects that these are hollow words, especially with the follow-up of ‘when photographed’. Here I am referencing the idea of acting normally and putting ‘a brave face’ on when exposed in public, though privately ‘only to crack / and crack / and crack’. The juxtaposition of the assertion that I am fine with the revelation that I am cracking in private serves to highlight the disintegration of the public/private personas.
This idea is reinforced further with the desperate repetition of ‘I am in a Play. / I am in a play’, which suggests to the reader that the whole situation feels unreal and the narrator has not accepted the death of her friend as a reality. This is further enhancing when she imagines her dead friend calling cut on the scene. The mentioning of photographs and plays also indicates that the narrator knows that how she is acting on the outside is all artifice, and not representative of how she is feeling inside. In this latter half of the poem we see the narrator begin to disintegrate – lines are shorter, punctuation used more sporadically and whole-word capitalisation used for emphasis. The use of stammering in ‘p-p-pain’ and ‘b-b-breaking’ echo the stuttering, disbelieving grief of the narrator. She is having trouble comprehending the situation, and her stammers accurately portray the struggles I had to form my words when in shock.
The final parts of the poem are the most upsetting and desperate. The lines ‘staring at the blank space between / Will and Yos / where she was, once / on a website’ allude to the days after her death, where I would obsessively check the gyms website for her profile and details to see if they would change or make an announcement. Her details stayed up for a few days after her death. Then, the next time I logged on, her profile was gone. There was nothing where she used to be, just listings of the next trainers, alphabetically. This was a horrible moment and I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach – as I detail in the poem, ‘a stiffening in my gut like / being sick, but without the post-hit relief’. It was hard to find words to adequately describe that feeling.
This desperation and inability to deal with that feeling of loss is shown in the last, repeated, line of the poem: ‘What’s the cure for that?’ These lines are set apart from the rest of the poem, seperated by a line break and a hyphen so they stand alone and haunting – the narrator is appealing to the reader with the hardest question of all – what is the cure for grief? How can I stop feeling this way?
There is no cure, only time. The poem ends, abrupt but plaintive, wailing it’s big question to the reader. It’s desperate. Grief makes us raw and uncomfortable, clumsy and hopeless. I wanted to capture that.