Notes On Mirrors, Already Lost

PattyPaineEverything after aches
river & bones &
the unsaid naming itself
endlessly. He comes to me
in dreams, and I reach
for needle & thread
to close the tear
at his knee.
This morning I found
ants in the saltshaker, a pattern
repeated in new snow
peppered with black walnuts.
I confess, with my tongue
I press His body
to the roof of my mouth,
sometimes I feel rose petal,
sometimes blister.

— “Notes On Mirrors, Already Lost” by Patty Paine

Paine’s “Notes On Mirrors, Already Lost” feels elegiac. Indeed, it appears in Grief & Other Animals (Accents Publishing, 2015), Paine’s most recently published poetry collectionThis poem isn’t only about a person absent, gone, mourned, but perhaps even more so about existing within the state of grief, a subject not uncommon in contemporary poetry. For example, in Married, Jack Gilbert writes, “I came back from the funeral and crawled / around the apartment, crying hard, / searching for my wife’s hair.”

Paine’s poem, however, feels different than many of the elegies I’ve recently read. In Gilbert’s poem, for example, there is a progression, through grief’s stages. Thus it continues: “after other Japanese women came, / there was no way to be sure which [hairs] were / hers, and I stopped” looking for them. And, in Caleb Curtis’ poem Sparow, another contemporary elegy, the speaker’s late sister persists as the haunting (and stunning) image of a dying bird. But in Paine’s poem there is no progression through grief, nor does the speaker appear to be haunted by her past. In fact, Paine’s poem demonstrates quite the opposite. Yes, there is intense sorrow throughout the piece, but there is also a sort of comfort or even a peacefulness within the lines. And, rather than canceling out or muting one another, this polarity co-exists and fills this seventeen-line poem to the point of brimming.


Let’s start at the beginning. The piece opens with the line “Everything after aches.” We can feel the effects of the leading letters of these three words, each of which is a front vowel. According to studies in phonetic symbolism, such as Keith and Robin Coulter’s “Small Sounds, Big Deals,” front vowels, which are pronounced with the tongue toward the front of the mouth, suggest to the ear the feeling of smallness.[1] Surely there is pain within the poem’s opening lines, but there’s also something comforting in the containment, the embrace, that these small vowels provide as if to, ever so subtly, suggest that everything is manageable, somehow all right.

But containment is not separation. The poem does not demonstrate the typical finality of loss. Paine continues the poem at the second through fourth lines with “river & bones & / the unsaid naming itself / endlessly.” The word “endlessly” is showcased by being the only word of the sentence within its line, and it is further accentuated as it leads the line. And then, we move from a singularity of one river to the plural bones to that which is, somehow infinite: all that is unsaid. Moreover, the brevity of the ampersands allow for a quickness, an unraveling, and a growing of sorts. Something in us is nurtured.

Moreover, the following sentence of the one-stanza poem suggests a stability that we might not often associate with intense mourning:

. . . He comes to me
in dreams, and I reach
for needle & thread
to close the tear
at his knee.

The speaker of this poem and her departed loved one maintain a relationship within her dreams, one she is so habituated to that she does not desperately “reach” out to him when he appears to her, but rather she reaches “for needle & thread” to mend her loved one. And, the specific details of the interaction, “the tear / at his knee,” bring these connections to life.

The ongoing nature of this relationship is made further concrete by the following lines:

This morning I found
ants in a saltshaker, a pattern
repeated in new snow
peppered with black walnuts.

I can’t help but be reminded that the poem is one of mourning when I arrive at the homophone, “morning.” This grief, however, does not necessarily seem to be one from which we can—or with which we want—to part. These patterns are a part of daily life. Finding ants in our food isn’t in and of itself pleasurable, but it is rather mundane, and we find comfort in our loved one being a part of our daily life. Additionally, the image of “new snow / peppered with black walnuts” is peaceful and serene, almost breathtaking. It’s also worth noting the newness of the snow. Unlike the strands of hair the speaker within Gilbert’s poem finds around the apartment, which will never again find their way to “the clothes in the closet” or slip “under the refrigerator,” Paine’s snow will fall again, year after year.

And, in the end,
we can also take comfort in an element of faith within this poem. Paine writes, “I confess, with my tongue / I press His body / to the roof of my mouth.” I am, unsurprisingly, reminded of my Christian upbringing and the Eucharist, and the poem has a reverence and sense of consolation. This being said, it does not feel as though these condolences aregrief pinhole offered as a promise for the future. Rather, we are comforted in this very moment when the poet continues, “sometimes I feel rose petal, / sometimes blister.” Much like in any other relationship, the I of this poem at times receives pleasure and at other times pain, and perhaps this is, more than any other way, how we know that this relationship is enduring. “Notes On Mirrors, Already Lost” is proof that while our connections with our late loved ones cannot stay the same, moving forward, these relationships can remain complex and even nurturing portions of our lives.

— Heather Lang, Zeteo Contributor

[1] Coulter, Keith S. & Coulter, A. Robin. “Small Sounds, Big Deals: Phonetic Symbolism Effects in Pricing”. Chicago Journal of Consumer Research 37.2 (2010): 315–28. Accessed via the Web, April 2013.

Photo Credit

Pinhole photograph of Patty Paine’s Grief & Other Animals taken by Michael Cassera.

About The Contributor

Heather Lang’s poetry has been published by or is forthcoming in Pleiades, december, Mead, Jelly Bucket, The Normal School online, among other publications. She serves as the Online Managing Editor for The Literary Review, as Co-Editor for Petite Hound Press, and as an adjunct professor. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her chapbook manuscript was named a semifinalist in the 2014 Tupelo Press Snowbound Chapbook competition, her poetry has been twice nominated for Pushcart Prizes, and she will serve as an AWP16 moderator/panelist.


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