Hilfiker (Journeys off the Road, 2015) meditates on grief and remembrance in this well-crafted narrative poem.
This work follows Jennifer, a grieving widow, as she visits the grave of her husband, Tom, who died while serving in Afghanistan. She’s the first person to come to the cemetery on Memorial Day; the groundskeeper, Old Steadman, lets her in at the break of dawn. Jennifer’s inner monologue makes up most of the book, although Steadman is also an occasional narrator. Jennifer’s (and Hilfiker’s) central motivations are to find an answer for why Tom had to die and a way to express “what remains unsaid” when remembering those who were killed in military service. Although the action takes place over the course of a single day, Jennifer’s narration careens among the past, present, and an unrealized future; there are vivid descriptions of details as banal as old shopping lists next to weighty retellings of Tom’s deployment order. These “kaleidoscopic thoughts / Once again recurring” allow readers to gain deep insight into Jennifer’s character during her vigil. Hilfiker’s images and metaphors throughout are arresting; one scene, for example, parallels rows of graves with the aisles at Jennifer’s wedding to great effect. The lines are short, sparse, and often anaphoric, and the use of repetition strongly reinforces Jennifer’s grief, with images coming like waves that are impossible to ignore. The author inserts other, found material, including quotes from public figures, into the poem just before the monologue structure threatens to overwhelm it, and the well-placed quotations highlight the distance between public and private forms of remembrance. Hilfiker does offer an interpretation as to why Tom and other soldiers had to die, but he doesn’t force this interpretation on readers. Instead, the poem invites them to ponder the answer for themselves.
A moving, haunting poem on the lasting memories and aftereffects of war that addresses heavy themes with aptness and aplomb.