North East Post
A Voice of the Free Press
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
1:01 AM 20th April 2024

Poem Of The Week: Off Duty By Katie Donovan

Off Duty

Is my face just right,
am I looking as a widow should?
I pass the funeral parlour
where four weeks ago
the ceremony unfurled.
Now I’m laughing with the children.
The director of the solemn place
is lolling out front, sucking on a cigarette.
We exchange hellos,
and I blush, remembering
how I still haven’t paid the bill,
how I nearly left that day
with someone else’s flowers.

Katie Donovan’s fine poem of disordered grief yields an honest approximation to that strange, unanticipated state of numbness that follows close on bereavement. The sense of the world unfolding as if in a play, and the newly bereaved an actor in its performance, is palpable here. Although we are certain that the two are indivisible, the idea of the separation of Donovan from her narrator might be a metaphor for the odd disjuncture between the grieving figure’s ‘actorly’ pretence, and the negotiation of a passage through an unrecognisable new landscape.

The undertaker with an insouciant fag, ‘lolling our front’, is an intimation of the quotidian, of life proceeding in a parallel world where grief is detached from the administration of its obsequies. For the figure in the foreground, uncertain of public expectation, that other existence processes as if extraneous to her; she is surprised by the autonomic response of laughter in a time and place of ‘conventional’ grieving. What, she asks, should a widow look like?

Form is necessarily subordinate, in this poem of counter-intuition and broken connections, to the state of mind examined; an authentic perspective, perhaps, on a component of the grieving process that we are afraid to contemplate.

‘Off Duty’ is taken from Off Duty, published by Bloodaxe Books (2015) and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the publisher.

The poem was also selected for Bloodaxe’s anthology Staying Human: new poems for Staying Alive, edited by Neil Astley (2020)