Yesterday was Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos), a time, especially in Mexico, for people to gather at cemeteries and pray for their deceased loved ones. As the leaves drift off the trees and the acorns pop on rooftops, I often, for reflection and remembrance, read and write poetry this time of year. The day made me think about Next Door to the Dead, a book of poetry by Kathleen Driskell. A Poetry Foundation national bestseller, Driskell lives in a former country church with her family just outside Louisville, Kentucky. Next door is an old graveyard that she was told had ceased burials when she bought the historic church. In this keenly observed and contemplative new collection, this turns out not to be the case as Driskell’s fascination with the “neighbors” brings the burial ground back to life, both literally and figuratively.
Driskell is the associate program director and poetry faculty member of Spalding University’s writing program, and is where I received my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction. While a student, I was fortunate to hear many great authors and upcoming writers read their works. It seems to me that hearing the spoken words of the writer, just as you read them on the page, and I immediately had an appreciation for Driskell’s writing and voice.
While reading the poems in Next Door to the Dead, I heard Driskell’s voice, not her actual voice like an audio recording, but rather, the memory of her voice from her readings.
Of course her poetry is much more than a remembered voice, it is personified, humorous, organic, and moody. Her poems articulate the cemetery much like creative nonfiction grounds you in place. The details taken from history, or from observations from a kitchen window, or during a walk, convey the author’s authenticity of her surroundings.
“Epitaph” the grave of Colonel Harlan Sanders is her only nod to celebrity.Now that Norm McDonald is satirizing Sanders, this poem seems more relevant as seems to both question and acknowledge Sanders as less than an original recipe of a man.
Her ability to be in nature and observe the organic role of death, is why “Crow” stands out to me, as it will to many readers. In “Tchaenhotep,” Driskell’s verse personifies an Egyptian mummy on display for decades at a local museum. “Epitaph, for the man with no last name” is the story of how man meets his grave, what relics rest with him, and why some things were left out. “Not Done Yet” is a story of a dog, a fly, a flea, and the “biting sorrow” that surrounds all three.
Driskell’s poems are richly detailed, humorous, mournful, loving, and sometimes whimsical, all difficult feats given her subject. While most people avoid thinking about death, Driskell’s poems are thought-provoking. The book is not about loss, or mourning, it is about place, not just our physical place, but where our souls feel full. Her poems dance around our mortality but they never devolve into darkness. While many went to the cemetery to remember and honor the deceased on Dia de Muertos, Driskell, with a poet’s sensibility, “visits” the cemetery next door to celebrate the vivid human, animal, and botanical life that surrounds us.
Order your copy of Next Door to the Dead from your local bookstore or from the links below.