Kathleen Driskell’s Next Door To The Dead (University Press of Kentucky)
In the famous final paragraph of James Joyce’s story, “The Dead,” snow was falling “upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
“The Dead,” of course, is prose but poetic prose, and in it the quiet calm of snow covers both the dead and the living. In poet Kathleen Driskell’s new collection, Next Door To The Dead, we again find ourselves in a cemetery, the one next door to Driskell’s home in a converted country church just outside Louisville.
But instead of snow in the “sleet and darkening day,” it is buzzards among the 112 tombstones in her poem, “In Praise.” A “dark congregation” roost in the bare branches … in worn-shine coats … pallbearers … [a] greasy black prayer-circle.” And instead of lamenting the paralysis of the dead and the living, here the poet praises death, reserving her “highest praise” for the “dark angel” who squats atop the monument of a mother of six, “all dead and lain before she.”
Like Joyce, Driskell in these 80 pages explores death, the meeting point between life and death, and the process of remembering the dead—which would probably be impossible not to do if you were a poet who lived next door to a cemetery. And like Joyce, Driskell is a story-teller, one whose lines are both accessible and filled with intensely vivid imagery. This poem, “In Praise,” is ironic, rather than ghoulish, for it expresses her gratitude for a perhaps less than tender mercy—the removal of road-kill (a dead doe) which has been lying in a culvert for a week and is finally being lifted into the “grave weeping sky” by the buzzards.