Community Feedback: Heather Derr-Smith reads “When the Next Breath Didn’t Come” by Robert T. Krantz


Community Feedback is our recurring column that provides an opportunity for our audience to get some quick, free & exceptional feedback on a new poem. Submit your poem here. This month’s guest editor is Heather Derr-Smith.


This month, we chose the poem “When the Next Breath Didn’t Come” by Robert T. Krantz. Scroll down to the bottom for Heather Derr-Smith’s comments. Thank you to all of our submitters.

When the Next Breath Didn’t Come

When the next breath
didn’t come,
and you gave
all that you were born
to give, love, and lose,
your chest stilled
under the blue flannel blanket
we bought for Bills games
and to place in the trunk of the car
in winter months—just in case.

In the springtime,
I find a shoebox with letters
written to the children
and can’t stop myself
from reading the delicate lines.
You gave your life
to life and took what was left.

Sometimes I go
to the closet and pray,
go to the closet and weep,
and wrap myself in blues
to not forget.

Sumner rains, windless
and thick, and the odor
of worms drowned in the street—
we are playing Life
on your mother’s porch
with the Cambisi brothers,
and your sister Jane.

I drive by the old brown house
to quietly ask the oaks
if they remember you,
if the grass in the field
next to the school recalls
your bare summer feet,
or if the self-centered moon
saw any of us at all.

Your ghost is in me now,
quiet and still
in every pause
between the rise
and fall of my chest,
as I wait for my next breath

Dear Robert Krantz,

It is late at night and quiet in my room in Iowa. Outside the snow is thick, intensifying the presence of the quiet and the dark pressed up against the windows. The lights from the lamps glow and I think of ghosts, the ones I’ve come to believe in, and sometimes talk to, who are not frightening. They linger in beautiful spots of wherever I am for the moment “living” since I travel so much, I never know exactly where I might be, but Look, there is one there, my father in the blooming hibiscus I’ve brought inside for the winter. He was color blind, yet whenever he came upon a red flower he would stop and stand in its presence, seeming to marvel, and he’d say, “Wow, would you look at that. That flower is red isn’t it?” There is also the ghost of my best friend’s teenage daughter who I feel close to in my closet when the clothes have fallen off the shelves. Her sweater is usually there and it reminds me of a teenage girl’s love for clothes. I sometimes imagine I smell her.

Your poem summoned the feeling of these beloveds to me, and more than summoning my own lost friends and family, I felt a larger gathering of yours with mine and those of all of us, communally, all our lost loves coming home.

I was recently listening to a lecture by Jorie Graham called On Description, and which I very highly recommend to everyone. I was beyond lucky and am deeply grateful to have been able to have her for a professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop back in the 90’s. If you or anyone reading this letter is not familiar with her lectures she can seem so intellectual and philosophical that it can be a bit intimidating. But what she has to say is well worth the time and the serious listening. In this lecture she talks about how we have mostly been taught to read poetry all wrong. How we go through this sort of  translation exercise in our brain, where we try to figure a poem out with our reasoning, try to suss out its meaning using our powers of deduction and logic primarily (these are all inadequate terms–but forgive me for using shorthand to cut to the chase) and what she wants to call us back to is the original way of reading poems and that is through our body. She shows, through all sorts of examples, ways that poets have structured description to allow us to experience a poem physically, rather than having to take this extra step of moving it through the part of our brain where we have to do more work to explain it to ourselves.

Well, the lecture changed the way I write and read (though this is always happening–I suppose I should say it brought me back to remembering how to write and read) and anyway I am still awed by it. She says that in reading this way, poetry becomes communal and “universal” the way it has always been intended and should be–for poetry is about connection between human beings, isn’t it?

Reading your poem gave me this sort of communal experience and I found it to be really moving. Tonight just a few hours ago, I received terrible news from my mother, who I was estranged from and have recently been reconciled with, that her newly diagnosed stomach cancer has metastasized. I am just now in a state of shock and grief.

Your poem was a consolation, and now I am in tears reading it again, bringing all my ghosts into the room of it. To begin with, the poem’s first stanza has drawn me in to the speaker’s breath, the beloved’s breath, and the poet’s breath and it has reminded me to breathe.

Lately I’ve been practicing breathing and remembering to breathe as a way to survive sorrow. Lately I’ve been returning to breath daily to steady myself and live on through loss and terror. Your poem effortlessly drew me to itself and into my body and breath. And it was a communal experience, just like Jorie described.

How did you do that? The line lengths, the rhythm and meter and beats, of course. Did you count those things? Were you intentional or was it by instinct? It doesn’t matter. So much of that can come from our own heartbeat.

So much is happening musically with breath, gave, give, love, lose right up there in the first part of the stanza and it seems to me to be like a chest filling with breath–like an inhalation up at the top of the poem. But the sounds continue with their subtle, slight rhymes and quiet echoes as the stanza goes on.

I am amazed at how the poem goes backwards in time and how I’m experiencing so much simultaneously–which is really complex and wonderful–and it’s all happening within language that is straightforward and clear and simple–not a lot of linguistic surprises (which normally I am partial to and look for in a poem).  As the reader is inhaling, taking in the words, the breath, as the belly is expanding like a balloon, the way they tell you to do it in yoga and mindfulness, the poem has begun with the last exhalation of breath. This is so profound! How did you do that? You begin the very first line with an expiration and stillness–nothing– and yet we as readers are inhaling–and time is expanding too, from the moment of death backwards into memory and life. So that this moment of death encompasses all of it.

That is exactly how I have experienced witnessing the last breath of a loved one. It’s this gigantic pause–only, it’s not a pause–it’s final. That pocket of space, that mouth, or hole, or opening, it feels like it expands and envelopes the whole room, the house, the neighborhood, city and the world. The loss is so profound it is an end of a world.

Well, you do that in the first stanza, poet. Bravo.

Oh and that heartbreaking –-just in case. There is so much you capture about caretaking here. For anyone who has walked beside a loved one dying, that long long journey of dying, that extra blanket and the just in case–and the physical vulnerability in it–well, that sums it all up.

You maintain the complexity of time and memory and the physical presence of the beloved in the second stanza. Without even describing the person, in the second stanza I feel a strong physical presence through the litany You gave your life/ to life and took what was left –these lines are so like liturgy that I think of the miracle of transubstantiation–how just in those words/sounds/utterances you have brought a physical body to life in my mind. Normally I would ask for details of this person’s body–description–but not here–not in this poem, because what happened in my mind was that I saw someone–and I won’t describe what I saw because I want to believe it was a visitation. This experience was very powerful to me and I don’t want anything to change in the poem here that would alter that.

I love the third stanza’s refrain and song-like quality. It also brings to my ear the sound of weeping, and I love the reference to the closet which is both biblical and thus summons up holiness, but also domestic and intimate which leads me to a space of marriage.

But the blues I am unsure of. It feels slightly too forced, creating a deliberate and self conscious connection between the blue blanket and the song. That feels less serious to me and less worthy of the poem as a whole. Perhaps too easy and it misses its mark. So I would look to revision in that stanza–and just trust your instincts–no need to force anything.

The fourth stanza almost loses me at Life–and I am doubtful and worried about that moment again being too obvious. This poem is so far so delicate and fragile and powerful in its subtlety–I’m feeling protective of it and these moments threaten to undo that delicate balance–like a web being clumsily torn apart by the hand.

I like introducing the ordinary events of days and I love how the beloved is there and not there in these memories–I could imagine the speaker playing Life with the beloved, but also after the death, with the mother or family members left behind–I could experience the person as a living breathing vibrant person and also as a ghost–and that kind of simultaneity is beautiful. So maybe just not the game of Life? I love the rain and the smell of worms which also harkens to decay and the grave. That is just so good.

I love the next to the last stanza–it is perfect–the mythological big big gesture of speaking to the oaks and the moon in grief. Wonderful. Every line of that stanza is perfect.

I don’t like the last stanza. Now is the part of this critique where I imagine a boxing ring and I will perhaps have many challengers who want to meet me there and fight me over it. Am I all wrong? Readers do you disagree? Who loves the last stanza and demands, insists it remain? I hope that the last stanza’s defenders will make themselves known to you.

But I am strongly against it as it is. It is too easy, too weak, and fizzles out of breath in a way that is not complex and too obvious. Charles Wright used to say “Don’t write a boring poem about boredom.” and here I say don’t write a stanza about death that end with the poem dying. I’m tempted to end it on the next to last stanza–but I don’t think that’s right either. I think what I am drawn to is just how strong that stanza is–so I think you need one more stanza that stands just as strong and probably a very strong image to close with.

But what is it? Where is it? I have no idea but I fully trust you to find it, or trust that it will find you.

Yours in Poetry,

Heather Derr-Smith


Robert T. Krantz is the author of four chapbooks of poetry, including mishigamaa and Gargoyle. His latest, Something to Cry About (Cathexis Northwest Press), was released in 2019. His individual works have been nominated for the Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize, and have been featured in Hamilton Arts and Letters, Grasslimb, and the Pittsburgh Poetry Review, among others.
Robert lives in Detroit, Michigan and works in the metrology field.
Heathen/Heather Derr-Smith was born in Dallas, Texas in 1971. S(he) spent most of (he)r childhood in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Derr-Smith earned a B.A. in Art History at the University of Virginia, where she also took poetry workshops with Charles Wright, Rita Dove, and Greg Orr.  Heather went on to earn an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has published three books of poems, Each End of the World (Main Street Rag Press, 2005), The Bride Minaret (University of Akron Press, 2008) and Tongue Screw (Sparkwheel Press, 2016). Their fourth collection, Thrust won the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize at Persea Books (2017).
Derr-Smith is Sufi & genderqueer and her work deals with trauma, both personal and geopolitical.  Derr-Smith leads poetry workshops in conflict zones and post-conflict zones with survivors of violence, war, and the international migration/refugee crisis.  She has worked in refugee camps and with IDP’s in Syria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Eastern Ukraine as well as advocacy for gun-violence survivors and refugees/migrants in the United States, Estonia, Croatia, Hungary, and Czech Republic.