Grief is one of the most common subjects in poetry, and while poems of grief can be incredibly poignant, reading a succession of them during a submission period can dull their impact. A well-done poem about loss is able to use poetic devices to expose the feeling in a new way that still connects with the reader.
The poem “Four Minus Three” by Shannon Laws is a masterful example of how weaving together familiar ideas and techniques in an accessible way can enable the reader to experience genuine grief. In telling its own story, Laws’ work ripped of the band-aid holding back my own feelings and let me look at them anew. The poem, which centers around a car crash that results in the deaths of three of the four members of a family, begins with an image that instills a sense of tranquility: “The sanctuary of four tulips / in a heavy glass jar / atop the dining room table / bathe in the afternoon sun.” The peaceful domestic scene conveyed in these first lines is painstakingly stripped away with each subsequent stanza until the speaker is left drowning in loss.
In the second and third stanzas of the poem, Laws invokes the concept of faith to convey a sense of desperation as the car hits a moose rather than describing it in great detail. What makes Laws’ reference to the religious so effective is that she turns it on its head—the fate of the family is not, she writes, divinely ordered, but “simply which seat you sat in at three a.m.” This bleak proclamation conveys the transience of life without hitting the reader over the head with it.
What makes “Four Minus Three” so effective is its simplicity. Laws doesn’t spend line after line describing the car accident, but depicts it starkly as it is. What imagery there is, like “Three bleed out inside a crumpled ball of car,” doesn’t pull any punches. Furthermore, the details Laws chooses to include tacitly show just how mundane tragedy can be—she closes the poem by observing that the sole survivor “could tell you / what the family / ate for dinner / yesterday.” Closing the poem with this idea not only connects to the opening line of four tulips on the dining room table, but drives home the reality of life’s everyday tragedies.
“Four Minus Three” is a rare poem that can be read and comprehended easily in one sitting, but reveals new layers with each subsequent reading. The sense of pain embedded in its words don’t exactly make it a fun read, but I find myself coming back to it again and again to peel back the layers of each word.
Caitlin Hubert is a junior at the Chicago High School for the Arts and the co-lead of Levitate’s poetry team.