An Engagement with Jessica Bixel

by Evi Shiakolas

The five stages of grief. We've all heard of them—thanks to Kübler-Ross: “denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.” And because grief moves through humans in obvious stages, many people associate grief with order. In fact, poet Jessica Bixel explores this theme in her two poems, “Broken Eclogue” and “A Theory of Windows,” published in the online journal Sink Review. She writes grief-associated order into these poems so much that she creates a progression in and between poems that mirrors the stages of grief. And though the poems are presented in only alphabetical order in the journal, Bixel explicitly moves chronologically from stage to stage, poem to poem, a narrative in which "Broken Eclogue" must be read preceding "A Theory of Windows" for a complete development of grief.

The first and second stages, denial and anger, appear in "Broken Eclogue." First, the speaker repeats herself over and over again. She addresses a ghost, perhaps her source of grief, five times: "Dear ghost...dear ghost,/dear ghost, dear ghost...Dear ghost." This unanswerable call demonstrates the speaker's denial of loss: she believes said ghost can answer her, but this ghost-character is in fact already gone. Further, she uses only dependent clauses throughout the entire poem; we never find out where her sentences end, halves are always missing, something is always lost. However, there is one exception, a complete sentence in which she declares, "This is moving backwards." This one complete sentence constructs stage two, anger, in its resolved frustration. She can't move forward, and this regressive situation angers her to the point of breaking structure to make a point.

Subsequently, the two poems overlap, coalesce to describe bargaining. While "Broken Eclogue" ends with the bargaining stage, "A Theory of Windows" begins with bargaining and progresses through the final stages of grief. The last fragment of "Broken Eclogue" is a plea: "Dear ghost not yet." The speaker tries to find something already lost, bargains with the spiritual world. As the closing line in "Broken Eclogue," this request transitions seamlessly into the first line of "A Theory of Windows:" "There is space enough in the world for one more small body." The speaker's bargaining, helpless plea and attempted negotiation demonstrate her desire  to bring the ghost back into the world: she believes there's still "space enough” for him. This bargaining node demonstrates the narrative shared by the poems; they dissolve into each other. And as we progress in the narrative, in "A Theory of Windows" now, the speaker moves from bargaining to depression. She explains that she "could die anywhere." This crippling self-assessment stagnates in depression. The speaker's life means little to her at this point—she experiences the sadness of loss here. However, despite the difficulty of this stage, the speaker can only move forward towards acceptance. She registers her loss and finally states, "To get light in the body you love you must crack it open." Here, she asserts the possibility of moving on, bringing the poem to a satisfying close. This last line lifts the poem and completes the narrative. These poems must be read chronologically in order to fully absorb the stages of grief.

Furthermore, even the titles transition from stage to stage with the content. The title "Broken Eclogue" introduces the poem as an eclogue, a poem inherently associated with pastoral springs. However, we learn that this eclogue is "Broken” and this is evinced in its depressive descriptions of springtime that resonate with one of Bixel's contemporaries, Anna Ross:

the fig trees become the nectary

becomes the flood-wrack urgency

of spring.

This phrase stirs a sense of emergency in flowered air—nature can self destruct in the same way that grief can destroy a person. And this destruction carries over into “A Theory of Windows” where Bixel describes the aftermath of this crippling season, broken plants, the results of "Broken Eclogue." She writes, “The foxglove, vesperal and wounded...Shards of witchgrass." In both poems, the motif of spring translates into trauma, loss, grief. But in the first poem, "Broken Eclogue," spring is in the process of destroying, and in the second, "A Theory of Windows," spring has destroyed, and we see the aftermath. However, the second title, "A Theory of Windows," reveals that the speaker has collected her thoughts and developed a theory of moving on. She resolves her grief at the very end of this narrative, this piece, this poem: the only thing left to do is grow again, "to get light in."
Jessica Bixel's poems breathe order in both content and progression: we must read "Broken Eclogue" before "A Theory of Windows" in order to absorb their meaning. These poems are the objective correlatives of loss--grief permeates each sentence and fragment. And these two poems coalesce into this united narrative-piece that in order to read correctly we "must crack it open."

Evi Shiakolas is a student at Boston University who is from Dallas, Texas. She is studying Biomedical Engineering but still hopes to pursue poetry throughout her life.