When I asked Ted Kooser for an unpublished poem we could print in Clio’s Psyche on the topic of death and dying during the pandemic, he responded by sending me his poem “Red Coat.” Despite not seeing any overt references to the virus in the poem, I realized that this was an elegy within an elegy. It considered not only the mourning of a friend or loved one but also life events that involve what psychologists call nonfinite or ambiguous loss. According to Darcy Harris (2019) in Non-Death Loss and Grief: Context and Clinical Implications, starting in childhood, individuals begin to organize schema, which reflects all that a person assumes to be true about the world and the self as well as refers to the assumptions and beliefs that create a sense of continuity and meaning to life. As a result, a significant life event that fails to conform to our beliefs can challenge fundamental assumptions about that experience. Countering a disruptive occurrence, people who mourn a past relationship, just as the speaker of the poem does, initiate a reweaving process that incorporates past events into present ones. This process is inseparable from the social context as incidents are filtered through social norms and structures that individuals identify or reside within.

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While the occasion of the poem, “Red Coat,” is the speaker’s attending someone’s funeral (we never find out who that person was) what happens there gives rise to the type of melancholic affects that result from non-death losses we encounter in everyday life and the importance of having words, particularly artful ones, to accurately express these living losses that are often not acknowledged for the depth of their impact. COVID-19 might be an epidemiological crisis, but it is also a psychological one. This poem subtly responds to the collective grief that we are all going through, whether due to physical distancing, financial hardship, or the destabilization of institutions that we rely on.

A key element for coping with grief is through a social connection such as the religious or secular memorial service where one can grieve alongside other mourners. Kooser’s poem opens with the speaker attending such a gathering when he incidentally runs into the woman whose death is being addressed in the poem; for it is surprisingly her death, not the deceased’s whose funeral it is, that the speaker is addressing. This is quite an unusual setup for the down-to-earth Kooser, but it is why the elegiac malaise of the poem centers around grief. His memory of that last meeting is what is conveyed in the poem, as it opens:

Had you lived longer, perhaps
you might remember, or pretend
to remember, holding my hand
at that funeral on the last day
I’d seen you alive, the two of us
meeting in that crowded vestibule
by chance after so many years,
both of us looking for space (Kooser, 2022, p. 340)

            Characteristic of Kooser’s poetry and his unembellished idiom and accessibility, he manages to convey the complexity of memory and loss through few words and understatement. An example of such is “both of [them] looking for space” to fill with their bodies, suggesting subtle connotations with death when there will no longer be psychical or physical space for them in life. Death is being presented not as a monolithic event but instead steadily accumulates more meaning with the couple’s chance encounter and the uncomfortable moments that follow. The usher seating them in the poem does not know their history and therefore does not seat them separately but “shoulder to shoulder” so that they can’t escape the residual pain caused by one or both of them:

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how the usher, not sensing the history
flowing into that moment, seated us
shoulder to shoulder in a pew
far at the back. (Kooser, 2022, p. 340)

Just as Darcy Harris frames non-death loss, the speaker and the woman have to reweave their history into the present to make sense of it and overcome the disruption caused by their break-up. Little is said about the service taking place beyond its inclusion of hymns to be sung, reflecting a waning of religious rituals that had, in the past, provided solace to mourners. As culture becomes more and more secular, customary modes of mourning have become more infrequent than if shared with a community. As we can see in this poem, the speaker and the woman are distracted from what is taking place as the speaker fits together the forgotten past with the remembered past as he writes the poem. Forgetting is the antithesis of mourning—it is as if the bereaved hold on to the pain of grief lest they betray the love that makes separation so difficult—however, to choose pain seems unavoidable. What the speaker is trying to remember is the crucial moment of physical contact when the woman asks him to take her hand. He can keep this concretely in his mind, a place to put the memory just as he is looking for “space” (that which is missing) for their coats and not finding them; he and the woman then continue to wear them as if to keep themselves and the relationship intact.

By the time that the speaker and the woman take their seats the idea of mourning has collapsed, and in its place is an adapting to the reality of developing losses. This is a poem that defies expectations—an elegy that is not about the one who is being mourned but about the woman who the speaker once mourned as a non-death loss who is now dead. In no way self-conscious or deliberate, the speaker in this poem, like the traditional elegist, counters death by placing the deceased at a remove from the living and positing a compensatory symbol or figure—the red coat—marking the transformation of loss into gain.

Then you asking if
I’d hold your hand, and I did,
feeling all of those lost years
beginning to pass back and forth
through our hands as we sat
looking forward, proper, respectful,
then stood to sing, fumbling

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the hymnal. (Kooser, 2022, p. 340)

After this, Kooser surprises the reader again by directly addressing the woman and asking her if she would even remember a “little of that.” As if he had heard the answer, he decides she won’t remember him following her out since he is already behind her, unseen, noting her reliance on the cane. As part of the artistry of the poem, Kooser deliberately uses subtle contrasts of arrival and departure, color and colorlessness, remembering and forgetting, white and red. Binary thinking or the capacity to conceive and utilize two or more opposite or contradictory ideas simultaneously involves the novel combination of associative elements that may well facilitate a creative solution, even a profound insight. Coleridge considered this to be poetic genius—to see each one within the other, and the synthesis of opposites, such as fire and ice or movement and stasis.

Paradoxically, these two people suffer more from separation in life rather than death and are attempting to fit grief into a life narrative. There is so much public loss in the age of the pandemic that the personal experience has been diluted and we risk becoming numb to the human tragedy all around us. As much as the reader might wish for an ending where the couple confronts one another and some past wrong is made right, Kooser seems to be saying that this is not the truth of how real life happens; and Kooser is famous for his common sense realism. Particularly for this poet, honesty is imperative in his art no matter where it leads. A poem can’t deceive itself—indeed, there are ethics involved in writing a poem, just as there are in mourning and truly honoring the dead.

Having said this, I would go as far as to say that the dead have the last word, here, just as those images of the red coat, the white hair, and snow resonate in the poet’s mind; the tragedy is in what is not said rather than what is. We never hear from this woman and get only the speaker’s side of the event. There is ample evidence of a breach in this relationship, which sets the two of them apart from the other mourners: “a topcoat/for me, sweeping red winter coat/with white scarf for you.” There is almost a bittersweet formality about those lines—as if a couple were stepping out together in happier times. Kooser leaves it up to the reader to fill in the gap of what history had been made and is still being made in their chance encounter, which is flawed by clumsiness. Although they are participating in the memorial, respectfully trying to sing from the hymnal, they “fumble”:

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Would you remember
even a little of that? But you
couldn’t remember, as sometimes
I will, how after the funeral you
appeared from the back, walking
away, carefully, lame on your cane
over ice and a little snow,
your long white hair thrown over
your shoulders, in that red coat,
the brightest red anywhere, ever (Kooser, 2022, pp. 340-341)

As Vamık Volkan has analyzed mourning in a variety of his work, finding that for an individual, there are two types of mourning: developmental and concrete. In the first type of mourning, there are phases through which an individual encounters loss, such as when the infant separates from its mother and gains independence so that we acquire a necessary “gain” as one advances through developmental stages of growth. The second type of mourning refers to losing loved ones, possessions, prestige, or ideals. Mourning occurs because the human mind does not allow the reality of a significant loss to be easily accepted without some labor of giving up the attachment. Not addressing acute mourning, Volkan refers instead to a slow process of internally recasting our real or wished-for relationship with the lost person. The image of a lost person or thing thus becomes a memory in so far as the mourner has accepted that they will no longer share the future together, nor the present which becomes the past.

What occurs at the end of the poem might seem unsettling, even shocking, when the reader realizes that the speaker following behind her and seeing her from the back resembles a funeral march because she is being seen through a symbol or sign, the way a fallen soldier is wrapped in an American flag. Also, midway in the poem, the action of holding hands is poignantly suggestive of last rites. This is vintage Kooser, unpretentious, candid, describing a very human moment even when there is a failure and looking beneath the surface of what facts tell us. In the end, the poet focuses not on the past but on the future, moving forward after she passes. He will remember her with the red coat, an extravagance of color contrasting with white: the color of desire versus purity.

One might wonder why the poem is not more somber given the weight of the loss, both with life and death. In the pandemic,

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death has become omnipresent, touching all that we do and think. It can’t be neatly tucked away, ritualized, or suppressed. When we encounter vigils and memorials for those who died from COVID, such as the planting of the white flags in the National Mall in the nation’s Capitol, we are presented with a tribute not seeking to heal the wounds of grief but instead keeping them open, so that labor of mourning that Freud first described in his 1907 paper, “Mourning and Melancholia,” can take place through a dialectic of lament and consolation.

The overarching intention of the poem is to humanize death and individuate it as personal. Kooser becomes almost exuberant when viewing the coat, like the Christian symbol of the lamb juxtaposed with Christ’s blood, but leaves that unsaid. It is yet another ardent lyric, a brief for the power of poetry, even—or perhaps especially—in the face of irredeemable loss.

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Judith Harris

Judith Harris, PhD, is the author of three books of poetry and a critical book on psychoanalysis and literature, Signifying Pain: Constructing and Healing the Self through Writing. Her poetry has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Times blog, and Slate. Her articles have appeared in Psychoanalysis, Culture, and Society, Division/Review, The Chronicle, The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, The Canadian Journal of Psychoanalysis, and The British Journal of Guidance and Counselling. She is at work on a new book, The Poetry of Loss: Romantic and Contemporary Elegies, to be published by Routledge next year. She has taught at George Washington University, American University, and Catholic University. She can be contacted at jlha.gwu.edu.

How to Cite This:

Harris, J. (2022). Death and the pandemic: A poem by Ted Kooser, U.S. poet laureate emeritus. Clio’s Psyche, 28(3), 341-346.

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