This marble fact: Jill Alexander Essbaum’s “Easter”

Dora Malech
April 13, 2017
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Last year in this same season, I wrote a post titled “You Are Spring,” reflecting on the life, death, and poetry of Patrick Flynn Eckenrode, who, living with severe depression, committed suicide on March 5, 2003, at the age of 26. The post includes excerpts from, and links to, some of my favorite poems about spring. What they have in common is that they are beautiful and very sad. Their sadness, paradoxically, consoles me every time I read them, as if the poet’s expression of the disconnect between interior life and the exterior landscape temporarily rights that discrepancy through its enactment in language.

In last year’s post, I excerpted from Larkin’s “The Trees,” Millay’s “Spring,” Williams’s “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime,” and Brooks’s “To the Young Who Want to Die,” from which I borrowed that post’s title (“You are Spring”). Another favorite heartbreaking springtime poem I didn’t share last year is Jill Alexander Essbaum’s “Easter,” first published in 2011 in Poetry. Here the speaker reflects on Easter’s season, in which, “Though all / is green,” each person the speaker has “ever loved // lives happily / just past” her reach.

The poem’s terseness feels deeply intentional, giving the reader the sense that the speaker only has so many words she can muster from her mourning. It begins with the title itself, “Easter,” as the subject of the poem’s first sentence, which is completed a mere five words later by the end of the first couplet:

is my season
of defeat.

Hallmark card, this is not, though visually, the short lines would fit nicely on one. Of the poem’s twenty-six lines (thirteen couplets), only one line is longer than three words – and that line is just four monosyllabic words:

As if the stone

The vast majority of the other lines (twenty four) include only two or three words, and one (like the title) includes just one word: the third-to-last line, which is simply the painful smack of the word:

fact:

Followed by the final couplet’s harsh reality (again, four out of five words are monosyllabic):

they are not
coming back. 

The assonant Dickinsonian slant rhyme of “fact” and “back” provides a kind of phonic satisfaction without resorting to false closure on an emotional level. Again, the reader’s sense of recognition, and the pleasure inherent in the materials and architectures of the poem itself provide what feels to me like solace, not any “moral” detachable from the text. Leading up to “fact” and “back,” assonance, alliteration, rhymes, and slant rhymes bind the text together throughout: Easter/season/defeat/green; death/done; alone/stone/rolled; green/feel; from/tomb/room; everyone/ever/loved/lives; happily/past; reach/each; rises/reminded; able/marble.

Published in our own decade, Essbaum’s poem, of course, enters an ancient tradition of poems connecting the external, natural world and changes of the seasons with the lives and emotions of humans, whether through the pathetic fallacy, or (perhaps even more prevalent since our Modern and post-Modern eras) a kind of reversal of expectation thereof, the comfort of poetry in a world in which, even more terrifying than a covenant with an unseen God, a rainbow might mean nothing at all.

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