The focal poem discussed in this essay is included in full, below:
November 26, 1992: Thanksgiving at the Sea Ranch, Contemplating Metempsychosis
By Sandra M. Gilbert
You tried coming back as a spider.
I was too fast for you. As you
climbed my ankle, I swept you off, I ground you
to powder under my winter boot.
Shall I cherish the black widow,
I asked, because he is you?
You were cunning: you became
the young, the darkly masked
raccoon that haunts my deck.
Each night for weeks you tiptoed
toward the sliding doors, your paws
imploring, eyes aglow. Let me in,
Let me back in, you hissed,
swaying beside the tubbed fuchsia
shadowing the fancy cabbage in its Aztec pot.
And you’ve been creatures of the air and sea,
the hawk that sees into my skull, the seal that barks
a few yards from the picnic on the shore.
Today you chose a different life, today
you’re trying to stumble
through the tons of dirt that hold you down:
you’re a little grove of mushrooms,
rising from the forest floor you loved.
Bob saw you in the windbreak—
November mushrooms, he said,
off-white and probably poisonous.
Shall I slice you for the feast?
If I eat you, will I die back into your arms?
Shall I give thanks for God’s wonders
because they are all you, and you are all of them?
The meadow’s silent, its dead grasses
ignore each other and the evening walkers
who trample them. What will you be,
I wonder, when the night wind rises?
Come back as yourself, in your blue parka,
your plaid flannel shirt with the missing button.
These fields that hum and churn with life
are empty. There is nowhere
you are not, nowhere
you are not not.
Throughout “November 26, 1992: Thanksgiving at the Sea Ranch, Contemplating Metempsychosis,” the speaker is thinking her way through the grieving process. She is imagining her lover has come back, as several poisonous or strangely human animals: a “black widow,” a “raccoon,” a “hawk,” a “seal.” The speaker’s anger is what is initially intelligible, her emptiness. By the end, she reaches what feels like a truer version of her grief by finally seeing her lost one as “mushrooms”—as growth come up from the dirt where he’s interred. This last incarnation is much more tied to the reality of his loss. She acknowledges his burial, and the fact that the natural world is already moving on. Gilbert structures her poem in a way that causes it to naturally build and become more emotionally charged as the speaker nears her acceptance of the death. In this way, the impact of loss is not sentimentalized. Rather, the language becomes a memorial to the one lost. The poem makes it clear that it is in memory that we’re most able to live on after death.
Gilbert sets this poem very specifically. We know the time of year (late fall – the “November 26” of the title), and that it is a holiday (“Thanksgiving”). We also know that the speaker is prone to intellectualizing her experience, that she is probably not poor (she’s on vacation – “the Sea Ranch”), and that she’s knowledgeable about her surroundings—the “tubbed fuchsia” and “fancy cabbage.”
In the first five stanzas, the speaker’s anger towards death, and hints of her curiosity towards it are tangible. Her love’s first embodiment is as a deadly black widow. She asks if she should “cherish” the spider because it “is” her lover—but to cherish it would be to hold it close, to succumb to it. Even this near to the beginning, it’s clear that she sees her lover not as dead, but as death. Death is her link to him, the thing that would join them. This can be seen as early as line four when she turns him, the spider, “to powder” – a small cremation of an already-buried man. But he won’t be extinguished. He takes on the “cunning” of a raccoon and ritually comes to her porch “for weeks,” standing sentry, a hissing ghost. Seeing him as different animals, she is daring death to take and change her, too. She sees him in the dark domain of black widow spiders—maybe in his abandoned closet? She sees him from inside the house, where she seems to have sat in the same room every evening for weeks, unable yet to mourn, maybe, but able to wish.
With the sixth stanza, the reader can suddenly breathe—the speaker leaves the house, the dark. A beach is conjured, a forest, the domains of hawk and seal. These animals are more noble, more human. They “see into” her, and attempt to communicate in their animal ways.
Then, finally, he’s released.
He “chose a different life,” and here the lines of being and not being are further blurred. The body he’s chosen at first seems to be his own lifeless one: He attempts to “stumble” “through the tons of dirt” that hold him pinned. Stumbling isn’t something a person usually tries to do; in this context it suggests the undead, zombie-walk, of movies. But then the language turns soft and reminiscent. “You’re a little grove of mushrooms,” she says, and her use of “little” shows us her fondness, her use of “grove,” imagines what might become of this generation of life. The familiar use of a friend’s name in the last line of this stanza, “Bob,” connotes the community to which the speaker belongs—a community in which her lover is no longer. We can’t help but feel her grief, here, but then again, her anger flares.
She wonders briefly one last time about death, this time, caused by the mushrooms, which Bob says are “poisonous” and which she considers slicing “for the feast.” Though she has spent the duration of the poem up to this point ruminating on her dead lover’s possible futures, here she envisions death as a kind of regression into the past – would she “die back” into their history, into his embrace?
Then again, our gaze turns outward; she has rejected suicide by all means, it seems, and has come to comprehend the truth of her reality going forward. The tone becomes melancholic as she relays the silent meadow, the “dead grasses,” which, she says, “ignore each other,” and those still living, who “trample them.”
In the last moments of the poem, the dead one is everywhere, and he is nowhere. And here we get the most tender, truest depiction of what his actual form was, in life. Through the objects that she might still own of his, he is embodied. She commands that he come back as himself, in his “blue parka,” in his shirt with “the missing button.”
The last two lines are meant to trip up the tongue and mind, to get us to slow, stop, to breathe in the loss and understand that it’s incomprehensible. Love doesn’t stop after the beloved has ceased—it lives on in everything he touched, in every shared relationship, in every touch no longer felt. Perhaps the most meaningful way that he’ll continue to live is in her mind. But for all that, he’s still gone. It’s this mixture of sentiment that those last lines summon:
These fields that hum and churn with life
are empty. There is nowhere
you are not, nowhere
you are not not.
On February 11, 1991, poet Sandra Gilbert was ushered into a hospital room without magazines or newspapers, a room which she realized was “where you don’t wait anymore.” Her husband, Elliot Gilbert, who had been admitted for a prostatectomy, died shortly after the surgery at the U.C. Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, California. His family didn’t receive a straightforward reason for his unexpected and sudden death. Even after a lawsuit, the answers to their questions came indirectly, through transcripts from depositions of Elliot’s doctors, and the helpful interpretation of these records by friends.
The couple owned a home at the Sea Ranch, a cliff-top community in Sonoma, California. This house figures strongly in the poetry Gilbert wrote following her husband’s death, perhaps partially because it was where they spent their last week together. “We walked in the meadows near our house, in the woods, and on the beach. We watched movies…built fires…” Gilbert wrote in her memoir Wrongful Death. “Some of the time,” she says, with her typical honesty, “I was…inexplicably harsh with my husband.” This is, maybe, also why Gilbert often returns to the Sea Ranch in her postmortem writing. She had no time to prepare for her husband’s passing, and thus didn’t treat that last week as anything extraordinary, as one might do if one knew ahead of time that death was a possibility, as, of course, it always is.
A little over five months after Elliot’s death, Gilbert was at the Sea Ranch house again. This time, trying to work through the emotional reality of the lawsuit in progress against the hospital where Elliot died. She writes that she has just gotten off the phone with her lawyer. The meadow is “ripe and golden,” she says, “lapped in what” she and Elliot used to call “‘the kindly light.’” The medical consultants who had been reviewing the details of her husband’s case believed that Elliot’s treatment was not “professionally up to par.” He was neglected. An internal bleed was left undiscovered until it was much too late.
The unknown of Elliot’s last moments comes back to Gilbert over and over, but as she considers what the medical experts have just concluded, the news conveyed to her by her attorney, she thinks, “Maybe if I sit very still, very quiet, Elliot will decide to show up here just one last time. Maybe he’ll remember the way up from the beach, the way to hang on to the roots of the cypresses…Maybe this once…he’ll come walking through the high grass…He’ll be wearing his old blue parka, and the kindly light will be behind him, so I won’t see his face clearly, but I’ll know it’s him…I’ll know it’s him.”
This year, Thanksgiving will fall on the 23rd of November, twenty-five years after the titular Thanksgiving in Sandra Gilbert’s poem discussed in the first part of this essay. The final months of 1992 would have brought her second holiday season without her husband of over thirty years.
Gilbert is a distinguished professor, scholar, and poet, and has contributed immeasurably to the field of feminist criticism, but it’s perhaps her writing about grief and loss that will have the most lasting effect. Called “an enduring contribution to the literature of grief” by the New York Times Book Review, Wrongful Death, read in conjunction with Gilbert’s poetry following her loss, teaches that death is as much a shock as it is a mystery. Gilbert didn’t attempt intellectual distance with either genre, and so shows the paradoxically muddled clarity of the bereaved. At a time when getting out of bed, eating, and showering become confusing and difficult, memory and emotion are fiercely lucid.
Though written a quarter century ago, this work hasn’t dulled. It prompts us still to remain faithful to the loves that we have, to constantly feel that love, to open up enough to let it take shape within our deepest places and fill us. Grief is powerful and the loss that Gilbert suffered is one that any person who is truly in love with another fears. This fear can be useful. Life passes so quickly, as we go from place to place, task to task, screen to screen. We need all the reminding we can bear to look at our loves closely, to know the feel of their skin, to be able to call up their voices, and the rhythm of their movements.
My husband is 29, still youthful, and we’ve only been each other’s for six years. We have reason to believe our life together will be long, but just as much reason to cling to each day as, contextually, we’ll reach the end so soon. In the span of history, what is one life, or two, and one love? It’s enough, I feel, to look long at another person and feel as Lorna Dee Cervantes’s speaker does in the last lines of “Love of My Flesh, Living Death”:
Blush of my breath, catch
of my see—beautiful bird—It’s you.