For the Death of My Ex-Husband by Elise Hempel

For the Death of My Ex-Husband

The first four stages of grief
have been accomplished, in random order,
a few repeated, with no clear border,
denial more like disbelief,

but the fifth – acceptance – almost
there on a sunny day, and then
refusing its place on the list again,
elusive as the five-word ghost

of your voice our daughter now
plays on her cell-phone over and over,
her finger in its endless hover,
passing the stop-square, pressing the arrow.

by Elise Hempel

Editor’s Note: This poem uses enjambment to great effect, highlighting the narrator’s sorrow (over her loss—so complicated, and her daughter’s—so easy to understand).

MRI by Elise Hempel


Inside this tunnel, still and prone,
so enclosed and so alone,

I’m waiting in a well-lit tomb
or a cold and arid womb,

about to be, or done and was,
on hold to Muzak, this jack-hammered buzz

and now a ray-gun’s droning song.
Without my watch, can’t tell how long –

nine months, a flickering moment? – I’ve been
paused here in this in-between….

When my timeless time inside
is over and they slowly slide

the lid away, will I go forth
into Heaven or onto Earth?

They’ll be the same, my welcoming crowd,
but what will rock me – arms or cloud,

and will my voice be cry or mute?
Held tight, or released, will I float

into After or out of Before?
Either way, alone no more.

by Elise Hempel

Editor’s Note: This poem uses repetition and rhyme to convey the sense of confinement (both physical and mental) found within an unfortunately necessary medical device.

Dirt Roads by Elise Hempel

Dirt Roads

Those childhood highway trips I’d stare
out at the passing cornfield miles
from my backseat vantage, wondering where
they went – those intermittent trails

that stretched away in the opposite direction
from our rushing car; I’d strain my eyes
as we made good time, tracing one down
as far as I could, following always

some pick-up’s slow cloud as it bumped along
the thin line of dust, past cows, a farm,
to a town I imagined beyond the shifting
green curtain, a secret place that time

had lost on that road that never arrived
but just kept going forever straight,
then vanished like that as we left it behind,
the pick-up this tiny red speck afloat.

by Elise Hempel, first published in Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry.

Editor’s Note: The imagery in this poem floats along the meter in one long sentence. The breathlessness of the final line mirrors that of a dream, a memory, or a wish.

Lost Words by Elise Hempel

Lost Words

I wonder tonight if you ever knew
I’d find your crossword puzzles almost done
on the table, take up your still-warm pen
and sit there thinking, finishing what you
had tired of or abandoned, a word or two
across or down, one section you’d left open,
wondering then if you’d notice them –
your empty squares filled in – as you threw
the paper away, those letters slightly different,
a few too dark amid your lighter slant
where I pressed the words you couldn’t think of.
No substitute for what we never said
but something, some small synonym for love,
your hand and mine together on that grid.

by Elise Hempel

Editor’s Note: This slant sonnet suggests rather than shoves—rhyme is subtle, as is meter, reinforcing the story instead of dragging it along.

Threshold by Elise Hempel


When does the recent past become
the distant past, when does a loss –
still new, unreal – begin to cross
into memory’s catacombs?

How many months create the door
through which the daze and doubt of grief
pass and slacken to belief,
and then a steady faith? How long before

your silent room – unbroken sun
on an empty sill, the stripped bed –
is just a scene, I glance instead
of stepping in?

by Elise Hempel

Editor’s Note: This poem uses fragments of meter and rhyme to portray the loss of a loved one. The yearning for peace instead of grief can be a frustrating journey.