Frances Itani’s A Season of Mourning is a more ambitious book, for all its slim 36 pages. The collection consists of two sequences in which Itani attempts to deal with the deaths by cancer of her sister and a close friend. Poetry no longer deals very easily with such material, and Itani chooses to write about death in a subdued, unhistrionic style. The poetry does not work very hard as poetry—there are no grand gestures, no railing, no huge tears—but oddly perhaps these meditations are the more effective for staying resolutely small-scale:
What are my daily functions now? Let us
examine. These are the functions of a friend:
to bend you over your pillows like a half-
opened jackknife; to cup my hands over your
dry flesh, clapping at your back. We have
created new ropes of sound, you and I.
Each morning wide strands of sound echo from
your taught and boney frames.
I have made a silent song from our rhythms.
Each cough gives you one more day. Though
You are mottled and weak and though you choke—
each cough extends your life by one day.
So cough, my friend, cough for the number of
days you desire.
At times Itani’s language is so spare that it is barely articulated this side of speechlessness: “I want to say:/ Listen Are you listening?/ What did we learn?/ What did we know?/ What was it for?” The heart is accurate here, but the poetry is, I think, not carrying it beyond anything save common inexpressible questions in the face of death. A Season of Mourning is too quiet, but Itani’s subdued grief and the poems it has produced are certainly worth listening to.