"I Stop Writing the Poem" is written as if Tess Gallagher were talking to herself in an attempt to console the pain she is feeling at the loss of her husband, Raymond Carver, the famed short story 1992 author. The poem is as much about their relationship as it is about Gallagher's sense of loss. In fact, the entire collection in which this poem is included, Moon Crossing Bridge (an American Library Association Notable Book in poetry, 1993), is about the life and love of Gallagher and Carver, as seen through Gallagher's mourning.
Gallagher wrote an essay in 1984, which she called "The Poem as a Reservoir for Grief." In the essay, she refers to her belief that poems are the best way to confront grief. The essay was written several years before Carver died and before Gallagher began writing her way through her sorrow. However, in an interview with Katie Bolick for the Atlantic Monthly, Gallagher says, "although I didn't know it at the time, much of what I was writing in that essay was preparatory to those poems" in Moon Crossing Bridge. In the same Atlantic Monthly article, she continues, "that book was written partly in order to sustain the grieving process long enough for me to absorb the loss." She says she realized through writing her poems for this collection, "all the different inflections in the process of grieving." She further describes the process of writing this group of poems as "discovering a form" that she could use to "move with the experience."
In a review of Moon Crossing Bridge in Publishers Weekly, some of the poems in this collection are described as affecting the reader "more because of what lies behind them than because of what shows through." This sentiment sums up "I Stop Writing the Poem," in which Gallagher writes about continuing the mundane chores of life while the reader feels the grief behind the ordinariness of these activities.
The way "I Stop Writing the Poem" is written, the title works as the first line, with the actual first line completing the sentence that the title began. In setting the poem up in this manner, the author emphasizes the reason behind why she has stopped writing. The reader of the poem is forced to go back and reread the title, so that there is a full understanding that something very serious has disturbed the poet's life. Upon rereading the title and the phrase that follows in the first line, the reader is struck with both the ordinariness of the action of folding clothes as well as the seeming absurdity of a poet interrupting her writing in order to take care of laundry chores. Readers also note that the title is ironic because obviously she has not stopped writing poems.
The second half of the first line offers a hint as to the real reason behind the poet's suspending her art. The phrase "no matter who lives" ends the first line without punctuation, leading the reader to believe that a counter-statement is about to be given, which it is, in the second line. The speaker is now assumed to be the one who continues to live, and the reader can deduce from all that has already been written that someone close to the speaker has died. However, the last phrase on the second line is a bit ambiguous as well as somewhat misleading. Gallagher writes, "I'm still a woman." Is she referring here to the chore of ironing? Or is something else going on with this statement? She may be suggesting another aspect of loss that a woman might feel upon losing her husband. Implied in this phrase is the sense of her husband having taken a part of her with him. At this point in the poem, the reader can only guess at the obscured meaning.
In the third line, Gallagher clears up the mystery of the second line. She ties together her statement of being a woman together with the household chores she finds herself compelled to do. On first reading, it seems as if the speaker cleans the house and does the laundry to keep herself busy enough not to get lost in her oppressive moods. This could be partly true. Physical action can dispel certain aspects of depression. However, is this all that Gallagher is saying here? Or is she speaking in an ironic tone? Through her use of irony, she might be trying to fool herself. Someone might use busy work to keep them from thinking, but eventually that person will tire of the activity and have to sit down. Gallagher knows this because she is a poet and is used to writing about her experiences. She might be temporarily at a loss of poetic expression, but that does not mean that she has stopped thinking. As a poetess, a major part of her normal activity is to write and think. All the other activities are substitutes, and she is aware of this. So no matter how busy she keeps herself, she is always conscious of the reason behind her focused attention on the trivial things of life.
The image of line four is a return to the clothing that the speaker is folding. This is no ordinary piece of laundry. The shirt is (or was) his shirt. It embodies him. It contains his smells and a memory of his shape. Following his death, it becomes him, in spirit. The reader can imagine the speaker's gaze as she looks at the shirt. Her eyes are fixed on it in a way that goes beyond her seeing the material, the buttons, the collar and sleeves. Also implied in this image is the way the speaker handles the shirt. Her hands touch it as if it were...
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