Who Is This Grief For?


“Who Is This Grief For?” by K. Iver is the winning poem for the 2022 Previously Published Poem Prize, selected by Palette editors. We’re honored to share this moving poem as well as an interview with K. about their work and process.

“Who Is This Grief For?” was first published in Salt Hill Journal, issue 46.

Who Is This Grief For?


My acupuncturist says
why so hungry these days
knowing I’m alone
too much.

I say my tongue wants
forkfuls of warm, white
cake, then, more forkfuls.

She says, what it needs
is another tongue.

Her needle tries to release
a decade-old phone call
stuck in the tight meat
between my index finger
and thumb.

I pretend my body’s
ready. Picture the old phone
receiver’s words Missy
and suicide pressuring
into steam. I pretend
the needle doesn’t hurt.

She says, how does that anger
work for you. I say, it works
because it’s mine.


I keep thinking how my grief
makes you small. How
you didn’t want to be a god
I’ve asked everyone to love.
Didn’t want me holding

strangers, so many strangers,
responsible. You had 9,566 
days before your last. You
held many more objects
than a chair and a rope. Faces
have softened in your hands.
Steering wheels have lived
there a long time. But I can’t
celebrate that. Not yet.
I can’t praise the smooth
contours of your nose
without wishing it were still
a nose. Without asking
Mississippi where it was
that night. My grief is precious.
My grief thinks it’s you.
If I wake tomorrow, content
with the sheets and square
bedroom, where are you.
Where am I.


My acupuncturist warms
my feet with an infrared lamp.
Turns off the fluorescent
overhead. Before she leaves

the room she says, I know
you won’t stop thinking but 
try to think happy thoughts. 

In ten minutes I’m asleep.
Some of my muscles relax.
Some twitch on the loud
crinkled paper.


Because my grief is asleep,
then, the news. Years ago
I quit a job reporting
government affairs.
I no longer have to visit
the desks of suits who say 
I don’t exist.

But headlines now wait
from our phones. Last week
upon waking–SUPREME
INTO EFFECT–you died
again. I walked, again,
through forests and streets
and the stale air of my
bedroom. Again, the brain-
bound ritual of holding photos
of you—a sergeant, backdropped
by an Iraqi desert, my neurons
careful to keep each muscle’s
geometry in place. When you
were alive and your photos
lit up Myspace, I mourned
such need for soldiering.
Later, I mourned how quickly
the internet lost them all.


My acupuncturist says
you enjoy this, don’t you.
She’s talking about my grief.
I say who else will. I tried
returning to Mississippi
where everyone remembers 
only what they want.
There, I said your name as if
to no one. Visited your buried
bones, alone. They would not
be blessed by this. I should not
want to hold one the way
we hold relics. There are
so many gods wanting
my soreness. I can bruise
my forehead bowing
before so many statues.
I don’t drink
anymore. Don’t binge
on fresh-baked softness
if it’s out of sight.
Still my grief habit says
what’s wrong with a little
pain? Who else does it pain?
I think again of your face
that’s no longer
a face. I don’t argue back.


—originally published in Salt Hill Journal



Interview with K. IVER

by AT Hincapie 


AH: Just as grief can appear in many forms, so too can the many therapies and treatments used to help ease the burden of suffering. In the case of your winning poem, “Who Is This Grief For?” – acupuncture does not necessarily resolve the speaker’s pain, but perhaps there is momentary relief during the meditative ritual that “her needle tries to release…” Does the physical pain of acupuncture help to ease (or at least distract from) this grief in a way that traditional therapies might not? 

KI: Acupuncture is one of the few therapies that allows one to feel pain rather than stuff it. Recent studies are showing that our unlimited access to short-term pleasure is making us depressed. In and outside of grief, dopamine wants more dopamine. One way around the endless pleasure-pain cycle of modern life, I’m learning, is to reverse it. Seek out discomfort in the form of strenuous exercise, a cold shower, or acupuncture. In turn, the body responds with repair mechanisms that include endorphins. For me, seeking discomfort also releases pressure, surfacing any trauma that’s lodged in the body. I started indoor climbing a year ago and have found that it helps me cry. Missy, the subject of my elegies, died in 2007, and I didn’t cry for him or talk about him for another decade, when I began acupuncture. 


AH: This narrative sequence uses dialogue in alternating sections to help organize the intimate spaces of the poem. Why show this kind of spoken interaction? Does this form allow the speaker to reflect on both the immediate healing process before them as well as past experiences that may have brought them to the acupuncturist in the first place?

KI: The acupuncturist in real life exhibited an all-knowing quality that I’d seen in my favorite call and response poems. She could tell by looking at my tongue and skin that I was in a lonely marriage, wasn’t sleeping well, was eating my feelings. Nothing got by her. Her communication style was abrupt, the opposite of coddling. I came there just to get needles, but she was interested in overhauling my lifestyle and, at the time, I found her nosy. She often asked me why my feet didn’t hit the floor at sunrise. I had a therapist who was helping me uncover and heal childhood trauma. When I used that language with the acupuncturist to explain my sleep patterns she said, “You’re not five years old anymore.” Her voice is vastly different than any of the conflicting ones in my head. She knew that I had the type of mind that loops in the past, trying to make some logic out of it. I love contrast as a craft tool, and her voice served as a stark contrast to my own obsessiveness in the poem.


AH: Direct address in this poem creates an epistolary tone that extends beyond one physical scene and carries far across Mississippi “backdropped by an Iraqi desert…” Can you talk about these reflective moments where the speaker speaks to rather than about the one they’ve loved? How might second-person address help communicate with a now-unreachable audience?

KI: When I speak of Missy in the second person, it’s often from an irrational impulse to get the reader to look at him directly, to love what I loved. Or, I want the reader to understand their complicity in transphobia, if they are complicit. I wish I believed in an afterlife. My rational mind knows I’m talking to a void when using the “you.” At the same time, speaking to the memory of someone you’re grieving or to someone who’s hurt you is a classic therapy tool. Rebuilding Missy’s memory and saying things I wish I had when he was alive—even confronting his need to go to war—has lifted the grief in ways I didn’t expect. 


AH: At times personal and at times political, this poem seems to suggest that suffering can become a shared experience, and can unite opposing ideologies in times of crisis and especially in times of war. Do you see writing as a political act, and if so, how might something intimate and immediate like this poem demonstrate these larger social and political frustrations?

KI: Writing is absolutely a political act. Anything I ask an audience to look at has political implications. Every time I write, there’s an opportunity to challenge the status quo of ideas, syntax, and poetic form. My grief was very personal and very political. Losing someone to the mere fact of their marginalization can be maddening. That kind of grief implicates strangers. Many of them. These elegies were born out of the compulsion to ensure Missy’s personhood and transness were not erased as they were from his obituary and his funeral. I wanted to rebuild that memory while also confronting the landscape that he found uninhabitable. I also wanted to portray him as more complex than a martyr for trans liberation. He went to war. He was a sergeant in the military police. He was a beautiful and loveable working-class trans person and he actively participated in violence.

I believe relationships are also political. Missy was a monolithic influence on my queer identity and he could be misogynistic. When Jack Halberstam said there’s no queer “community,” one of the implications is the cruelty that one queer person can inflict on another. I did want this poem to highlight that intimacy—as you put it—as relationships, like the families we grow up in, can so often mimic our collective struggles for power. I’m writing about this idea in my new manuscript about desire and the power it gives the desired. I’m continually surprised that queer relationships are not an automatic escape from patriarchal harm. 


AH: For our readers who are considering academia: You have a Ph.D. from Florida State University and are the 2021-2022 Ronald Wallace Poetry Fellow for the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. How have these professional opportunities contributed to your creative work, or even provided you with the resources and opportunities to focus on your craft?

KI: I’m preoccupied with the realities of who gets to make art. Before I moved to Florida, married, and got my Ph.D., I didn’t have the time, energy, or recourses to write. I worked thirteen-hour days, couch-surfed, and was hungry. I’m no longer married, but I’m much luckier now than then. If you’d have told me eleven years ago that a ten-page writing sample would have gotten me a fellowship with the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, I might have tried to do what Lucille Clifton did and carve out ten or twenty minutes where I could. But I didn’t know about Lucille Clifton. I didn’t know nearly enough. My education has provided me the access to time, knowledge, and community that I used to dream about. The older I get, the more I think of time as our most precious resource. This fellowship has made me wealthy with time. I teach one class a week. I walk around the many lakes, hang out with other writers, mentor queer youth, and write a new book. I’m more excited about the work I’ve done here than any of the previous work. Time has a lot to do with that. I wish every writer could have this. 



K. Iver