In the aftermath of personal or national tragedy, we always seek comfort—whether through rebuilding a normal routine, traveling, or keeping family close—in order to reassemble normalcy and continue onward. In Where the Dead Are, Wanda S. Praisner uses poetry in the daily struggle of remembering and recounting her 19-year-old son’s untimely death. Grounded in straightforward narrative, these poems repeat the process of mourning. Highly accessible yet emotionally fraught, Where the Dead Are acts as a compass with which to navigate loss. Readers can participate alongside the speaker rather than only observe these tragic moments.
A sense of familiarity in these poems is mirrored in thought patterns that veer off track. Readers slowly learn of the speaker’s loss in fragments and snippets presented in clear-cut narrative. The figure of the dead son surfaces in nearly every poem. In “Diving the Empress of Ireland,” the speaker watches her sons unload their gear from diving into a sunken steamship.
I’m glad you’re home, I say— /
wonder if they think
of their brother drowned
in a safe place,
doing a safe thing.
Juxtaposing the drowned victims of the Empress and her own son’s drowning, the speaker continually finds connections between historical and personal events, threading each object and occurrence in her life to one moment. Even poems reflecting on artwork can take unexpected turns, such as in “Portrait of a Young Man,” in which the speaker, meditating on a painting, observes, “The face, transfixed and white, / gazes out and down at nothing. / He could be dying—my son had such a pallor.”
Transfixed by this recurring moment (and image) of her son’s death, the speaker is plagued by guilt and remorse. Seeing objects caught in a waterfall reminds the speaker in “Along the Trail” of how
I wasn’t there the next morning
when they found you on the bottom
and brought you out—the mouth
I never kissed goodbye,
covered in bloody froth—
and how those things trapped remain in “ongoing turmoil.” This feeling is all too common in unexpected deaths, especially of those so young. The poet’s fraught and genuine emotions create in the reader a sense of community through personal glimpses of grief.
Motherhood always filters into these poems that capture small, lyric moments framed by a singular event. In “Come Night,” the narrator shows how the woman “thought grief must be like the hot tea she held— / a matter of letting it go cold in the cup, / a matter of waiting. Later, a sense of commingling with death enters with “Invitation,” in which the speaker tempts Death by driving on icy roads. Instead “he’s busy / elsewhere, inventing guises. // My son’s face and smile begin to fade.” Even memory itself begins to alter the dead in a way that death cannot.
While not particularly a book of redemption, Where the Dead Are acts as a field guide to enact grief while still moving through life. Readers will remember with the speaker while continuing to the next poem, joining in through the act of reading. Loss and mourning are both private moments and shared, communal acts. Praisner proves this duality is an essential part of striving to heal but not forget.