Review: Elegy

Elegy: Poems by Raphaela Willington
(unbound CONTENT, 2012)

In the foreword to Elegy, John Briggs begins by saying, “Raphaela Willington died on January 6, 2004, of ovarian cancer. Death became her muse in her last years.” He goes on to describe a woman of admirable strength and a poet of considerable talent.

The first poem begins: “Sometimes you wake / into silence” (“Sometimes You Wake”, pg 20). From there the book proceeds to muffle death’s dirge with birdsong and rustling leaves. The poems’ gardens are vividly alive. Zucchini and paperwhites thrive there, tomatoes and zinnias. Deer, squirrels, and groundhogs roam the pages, and “The sun is today a citadel / falling falling / yet standing” (“This Day”, pg 28).

In Elegy, death isn’t a morbid centerpiece, nor is it draped in mourning. Instead, it is herded into place as simply another visitor in the gardens. When the author finds the skull of a buck, antlers still attached, she says:

“One ear remains intact, as if listening, I imagine,
for the sound of the voice of my father calling us,
     mother and me,
in from the dusk of the garden
     at the end of a long day.” (“Endgame”, pg 45)

Later, she hears her name in winter’s approach:

“deer feasting on our hearts,
tomatoes crystallized into summer’s rubies
set in circlets of dying vines” (“Growing Seasons”, pg 76)

The foreword says, “A culture plumped with its belief in self-importance and fixated on amassing accomplishment might judge that Raphaela didn’t ‘do’ much with her life.” (pg 12) I say she did much that was remarkable, and I’m particularly grateful to her for writing Elegy. It seems to me as if she peered through the veil that separates life from death and fearlessly recorded what she saw. Then she wrote her observations into beautifully lyrical, meticulously revised poetry.

  • Find out more about the book here.
  • Six poems from Elegy were the inspiration for a song cycle that recently premiered at Western Connecticut State University. Read about “Wrensong” here.

Last week, my trip included a morning in Elora, Tennessee, where my mother’s father is buried alongside his parents and a handful of other relatives. I never met my maternal grandfather, who died before I was born, and I have few memories of his parents.

My visit was intended to honor Mother’s memory, more than theirs, so I was surprised by how their headstones affected me. I became intensely curious, wandering past name after name. Who were these people? How much of them lives on, in me? My connection to these graves was strengthened by my recent experience reading Elegy, which I had finished the day before our drive to Elora.