I’ve just finished reading Lorri Neilsen Glenn‘s amazing book of essays, Threading Light: Explorations in Loss and Poetry. This is a book that blows my mind—that blows my mind and my heart wide open. It is a book of gifts, a work that gathers the diffuse gifts of a life and slowly, lyrically—with great attentiveness and a willingness to linger, to circle, to locate the heart of the thing—brings them to its reader: me, and (I hope) you.
I met Lorri at The Banff Centre in 2004 when, I think, the seeds of this project were stirring for her. I was there to write poetry about loss, incidentally–my mom had died less than a year before. I felt, when talking to the other writers there–particularly when anyone asked what I was writing about–like an open door with the wind blowing right through me. When Lorri asked me, and I answered, I felt met: here was someone who understood that loss mattered. So when I learned that she had written a book of essays on loss and poetry, I was eager to read it. It arrived in the mail a few months ago, and I’ve been making notes on this book since February or March, when I began reading it, a few hours at a time, whenever I could find a receptive window of time, attention. This is a book that deserves to be read this way, with an attitude of receptivity (that corollary to generosity—the inverse, necessary gesture). This is a book that profoundly repays readerly attention and generosity, and I have a feeling it will continue to do so: it will keep resonating outward, inward, in me for quite some time.
I have lost most of my notes. Scratched into the lines of whatever coil-notebook followed me around the house that particular day–the day I read “Tracks,” the deeply immersive, sensually vibrant first piece in the collection, which considers a child’s coming to awareness alongside the death of a not-quite-stranger, in the context of a community’s racism–or “A Little Death,” a deeply considered, powerfully moving meditation on grief and its capacity to last, in which Glenn writes of the long-ago death by suicide of her fiance. Wherever they are now, most of my early notes are not here. But what I haven’t lost is the resonant sense of someone’s loss turned into a shared thing, something I now carry–not as a burden, but as a bright shard, a totem, a gift.
I haven’t lost, either, the marks in the margins, the places my pen directs me to return because there is something there I need to find, and find again. In “Ground,” a lyric meditation on graveyards “as places of comfort and perspective,” on death as the “ground” of life, on art, and ultimately on “cultivating the practice of walking on common ground,” Glenn offers this image of her mother standing as a visitor at the family gravesite: “I snapped a photograph of her that day—her black bowler hat, flowered blue blouse, dark glasses. Is it comfort or courage that allows someone to look at the patch of ground where their remains will be?…My mother stood motionless, looking down. How long, I wondered?” (70). Here and elsewhere, the author guides us through the work we need to do in this world: of holding together the immediate and what it mediates–namely, past and future (in either case, inevitable) death.
Our culture desperately needs greater intimacy and facility with loss, and Lorri Neilsen Glenn has cultivated these deeply. But this book is so much more than an exploration of loss, or even of poetry. As I turn the book over now in my hands, wondering what to share, to include here, I find line after line that leaps out at me from the page—small koans of sentences like scraps of poems tucked into the paragraphs (there are whole poems there, too, reprinted from her latest book of poetry, Lost Gospels). And it strikes me that these lines to return to, these lines that leap out, will be different for each of us. The notes I took toward a review (the kind of review I thought I would but will not write) are not the same as the notes I scrawl urgently into my private notebook because I know if I return to them they can help to lead me where I need to go. That’s the kind of book this is—the kind full of lines to return to, to read over and over, because the thought and the language are so finely tuned that some third thing emerges from them and flies, live and uncaged, out over the page. And I want to repeat this magic until I understand it more fully—that is, until the magic, for me, is gone. I know these are lines I will return to over a long, writing life (because like everything else I’ve learned, I will eventually forget, and the magic will be new).
Lorri Neilsen Glenn has created a book that will be a great spur to any serious writer’s true work. She writes with philosophical nuance and moral courage—about loss, yes, but ultimately about life, about the work we do as human beings reaching for a more compassionate understanding of each other, whether through writing or spiritual practice (or both). Not only is this book a powerful, life-affirming, joyous and wrenching meditation on grief and loss, it is a book that stakes a claim: that grief and loss are the path to community, because they bring us to the ground of our shared humanity. “Air,” the last essay of the first section, begins with this line: “We breathe in the very molecules, apparently, that others over the centuries have breathed” (39). In this essay, which follows the author from a US Air Force Base to Hong Kong to a Buddhist meditation retreat in the Martimes, and as the opening line signals, Glenn begins to open her meditation on loss to its full breadth. In the essay’s final paragraph, she writes: “I long to travel to the centre both of darkness and light, loss and joy, to reach beyond reason, toward a state larger than the confines of my body and its petty preoccupations” (62).
The final section of the book, which Glenn describes as “a meander in ideas about community,” builds to a crescendo of intelligence and warmth, compassion and grief. A potent exploration of poetry and community, of the sensual dailiness and urgency and risk of mothering, of loving, of being alive, of engaged non-hierarchical community as a response to loss, as a way of going forward on the path, Threading Light is literature as “the erotic hearth we are drawn to, the deep river and nameless source” (117).
At the end of reading this book, I feel like my heart is shocked clean. I long to be where I am, to shake off the reading posture and look at the crabapple blooms and blue sky and stand up to my full height. I listen to the neighbour cursing his dog, mowing his lawn—and I want to be fully awake in my life, to make more room for empathy and less for ego. I want to accept, to be receptive to, “the gift of tears.”
I want to love well. I want to write. That’s the best review I know how to give.