Sets of prose poems beginning “Instead of dying,” frame Lauren Haldeman’s collection, which takes its title from these opening words. The graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop spins small but compellingly fanciful stories featuring her late brother. The effect is powerful, highlighting the poet’s sadness as she imagines happy alternatives to a bleak reality.
“Instead of Dying,” which won the Colorado Prize for Poetry, also included two sections devoted to 20-line poems. Each of these is positioned next to another poem that rearranges the language of the first poem to create different tones, meanings and possibilities.
For example, one such poem begins: “Temperature is a product/of being embodied.” Its companion poem begins: “Produce a temperature/body, and be.” The juxtapositions of these poems are lovely and mysterious.
At the center of the book is a section of poems named for astronomers and philosophers. These brief poems engage with discoveries, ideas and controversies associated with the famous figures. In poems about Copernicus and Galileo, Haldeman considers the radicalness of a new astronomy with the sun at the center of the universe. Isaac Newton’s apple gains dimension and added weight in the poem bearing his name.
In the end, however, it is the “Instead of Dying” poems that are likely to stay with the reader. Filled with longing, each is a tribute to someone lost who can still be found in the poet’s fertile imagination.