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A Review of Joan Kwon Glass’ Night Swim by Terri Linn Davis

If I allow myself to sit with the feeling, to name what comes after losing someone to suicide, my thoughts, as always, drift to metaphor; I imagine the sea floor: tectonic plates converging unseen, a quake in the very earth itself displacing billions of gallons of ocean and anything else that lives.

The tsunami that often follows is grief.

Sometimes there are foreshocks; the water pulls back into itself and you know—the tsunami is impending, inevitable.

Sometimes, like in Joan Kwon Glass’s debut full-length poetry collection, Night Swim, winner of the 2021 Diode Poetry Prize, we find ourselves swept out to sea on a wave we never even knew was coming.

In this lyrical poetry collection, readers share in the tragedy of the speaker’s eleven-year-old nephew, Frankie, dying by suicide and his mother, Julia, the speaker’s younger sister, following two months later. Glass expertly uses structure, a thing sorely craved by and missing among those in the wake of suicide, to create a manuscript that teaches as effectively as it devastates.

In the book's titular poem, and the first in the collection, the speaker introduces readers to being an expat, a person living outside their native country, to their new home—grief. Glass relates this uncanny feeling through a lost swimmer on the border of North and South Korea:

How many of us have swum through current of grief or shock
only to find ourselves disoriented, standing on the shore of a strange country?

as he staggers forward in the darkness, trying to convince himself: I am home, I am home

(lines 912, 1718)

In an attempt to make sense of the unfathomable, Glass classifies this new home, this “strange country,” by organizing her poems into sections titled after the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

In the first section, “Denial,” readers are immersed immediately into the speaker’s mourning, after losing Frankie, with the poem “How to Pray After Suicide”:

fall to the floor in the empty house kneel beside the bed where he pulled the trigger and bled the same bed where he slept safely for years…
place your ear to the floor, listen for whatever echo death leaves behind

(15, 911)

In the same section, we’re introduced to Julia in “Exit Wound”:

The night before her son’s wake, my sister refused to leave the funeral home. She sat on a stool by his coffin for hours, stroking the exit wound above his left temple
The mortician had to come back twice to fix where my sister had rubbed her dead child’s face all night

(1–4, 23–25)

There is little transition in the “Denial” section between Frankie's and Julia’s deaths, mimicking the utter cataclysm of two suicides so close together.

We are transported to the sister’s death with the poem, “First Viewing”:

Upstairs, my mother sobs and paces. I’m listening from downstairs in the basement with the lights off, sitting on the guest bed, remembering two months ago, when I held my sister here as she screamed in my arms for her son. Tonight, I have to go to the funeral home and see her body, tell the mortician whether the dead version of her looks enough like the version of her I remember,...
…Knowing how cold her skin will be, I don’t touch her hand. Instead, I stare at her eyelids which are sunken in, skin still trying to protect something no longer there. I turn to the director, ask if there’s anything he can do to make her look more alive

(1–7, 19–23)

The last poem in “Denial,” titled “First Sunrise,'' shows the speaker at her teaching job, surrounded by her coworkers. She is forced, for the first, but never the last time, to live as if time has not stopped just hours after her nephew’s death:

Ten hours after he died I stood at the copy machine with the other teachers, photocopying readings for my substitute. I hadn’t told anyone yet

The sun had not risen yet on that first day without him in the world. But it did. It has every day since.

(14, 1618)

“First Sunrise” haunts readers because we know that where denial ends, the journey of living with it begins.

In this strange, new country, grief refuses to play by the rules of time and space; it is—perhaps forever—inextricably interlaced. After “Denial,” poems are separated within each individual state of grief, but they are not linear. Within each section, poems may jump back and forth in time from before, to during, to after—to years after. Poems featuring the speaker’s childhood memories with her sister and memories of her nephew visiting are now shaded by what will happen.

In the section titled “Anger,” the first poem, “Asking for Help,” is in the epistolary-style and situates us backwards in time to before the nephew’s death, reinforcing the concept that grief works retroactively. Here, readers are let in on what steps were not taken to help the speaker’s nephew when he was showing he needed help:

The day after he ran away, you called me, asking for advice. I gave you a list, made sure you wrote it all down:

Three days later, I called you to see if you’d made progress, ask if I could help with anything, find out how Frankie was doing. I decided not to do it, you said. Which part, I asked. All of it.

(1–2, 15–19)

There are five items on this list. The most poignant, to me, being the fifth: “5. Sit down with him and tell him that you can see he is in pain, / that you are not angry at him, that you will do whatever / you can to help him” (12–14).

In the beginning of Night Swim, Glass quotes Harvard Health (Harvard Health Publishing 2019):

Every year in the United States, more than 45,000 people take their own lives. Every one of these deaths leaves an estimated six or more “suicide survivors” — people who’ve lost someone they care about deeply and are left with their grief and struggle to understand why it happened.

My much-beloved uncle has been gone fourteen years this past March, taken from us in a way very much like Frankie was. One of my sons is named after him. Another one of my sons is eleven years old and struggles with depression and anxiety; it is a family heirloom.

Recently, after we had gone through a hard, life-altering experience, I took the speaker’s advice and before anything, I told my son, I can see you are in pain. I am not angry at you. I will do whatever I can to help you. Then, as the speaker implored her sister, I followed through. I know now that eleven is not too young.

Night Swim is a poetry collection that is objectively stunning. I expect that more awards will follow. Joan Kwon Glass’ talent is undeniable.

But even more importantly, I believe it to be transcendent. This collection—filled with such love, such regret, such hope, through this aching retelling—will save lives.

Full Title: Night Swim

Author Name: Joan Kwon Glass

Publisher/Imprint: Diode Editions; Doha, Qatar & Richmond, VA

Publication Date: March 23, 2022

Page count: 84

ISBN: 9781939728487

Price: $18.00


Terri Linn Davis has an MFA in poetry from Southern Connecticut State University where she adjuncts and teaches writing composition and poetry. She is the recipient of the Jack and Annie Smith Poets and Painters Award (2018) and attended the 2022 Kenyon Review Writers Workshop for poetry. Her poems have most recently appeared in Flypaper Lit, The Daily Drunk Mag, Five South, West Trestle Review, Emerge Literary Journal, Ghost City Review and elsewhere. She is co-editor of Icebreakers Lit, a journal featuring collaborative writing, and is the host of the podcast Too Lit to Quit: the Podcast for Literary Writers. She lives in Connecticut with her co-habby and their three children. You can find her on Twitter @TerriLinnDavis and on her website


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