“I often describe the time after my husband Cliff’s death as a period when all my molecules were thrown high into the air and, in settling again, completely rearranged.” In this molecular rearrangement, Jan Haag, a journalist and creative-writing professor at Sacramento City College, writes her first book of poetry, Companion Spirit, published by Sutterwriters’ LAMP small press in Sacramento, Calif.
Her entree into the poetic world commits the most personal act: writing about the death of a loved one. Haag triumphs in writing a moving collection of love poems that weaves a loose narrative: falling in love, heartache, losing, grief, mourning and finally moving toward a place of hope after her husband’s death.
Although the subject material sounds depressing and hinges on the sentimental, Haag writes as if she and the reader are having an intimate conversation about love and death that is enlightening, heart-wrenching, honest and hopeful. The poems are about love, not only for her late husband, but also for places, everyday objects, the world and the human spirit. This is a place where plain-spoken language (in a minimalist style) comes alive: pumpkins, gravy, Adirondack chairs, blankets and cameras are not only the stable objects themselves, but also powerful metaphors that reveal who we choose to love and why.
Haag’s poem Gravy (after Raymond Carver’s poem): “He said it again, lying in / a hospital bed, that valve growing / an infection like mold on cottage cheese: / ‘It’s all gravy anyway. I got more / than I deserved’” is a good example of a recurring image, that of her husband’s faulty heart valve, which serves as an underlying heartbeat throughout the poems. Haag’s poems are “prosy,” using articles, prepositions and pronouns in full sentences to articulate the story, but the poems never seem dull and lifeless. They work on their own, though the reader does not know the entire story and, given Haag’s careful attention to word choice, the poems are fluid and vivid in their arresting images.
Ironically, in Pumpkins, Haag admits she cannot write a love poem, cannot figure out the proper postage to heaven, but what she does find in placing her husband’s ashes with the rotted pumpkins in the yard is that he will receive her love through the regeneration of the soil in her front yard: “it was time to mulch again / i put bits of him, nothing more / than ash and bones, out there with old / pumpkin pieces & long-dead cats / because he taught me about living things / going back into the earth, the cycle / of seasons, dead things making / the cosmos bloom pink & lavender grow tall.”
What readers will find in Companion Spirit is exactly what Haag claims she cannot do: write beautifully rendered love poems about the encapsulated small moments that add up to being in love with life and another human. These poems stay with the reader, and they make grieving for a loved one honest, beautiful and bearable.