Pantoum Exercise to Echo Feelings of Loss

 David and Jeff on Christmas long before they developed cardiomyopathy.

David and Jeff on Christmas long before they developed cardiomyopathy.

Try a pantoum. The pantoum is the perfect form for echoing loss. It’s comprised of quatrains and can be as long or short as you wish. Each line of the pantoum is repeated, so if there are eight original lines, your pantoum is sixteen lines. Here’s how it works: Pay particular attention to the first and the third line of your pantoum because they will be used in reverse order in the last stanza as lines two and four. In other words, the poem begins and ends with the same line, so make it a good one. The rest of the repetition works like this: Line two and four from every stanza gets repeated as lines one and three in the next stanza. Thus, the final stanza of your poem is completely an echo coming from the first stanza and the second to last stanza. A little confusing, but if you’re having trouble following this, a more detailed explanation is available at

What’s nice about a pantoum is the repetition. When something has affected you deeply and profoundly, it’s not unusual for people to repeat themselves. It’s like saying, “This is what happened to me, THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED TO ME.” What I like most about this form is that the form mirrors the content. Speaking the lines twice enacts the devastation that you feel.

Write a Persona Poem or Dramatic Monologue

Write a persona poem or dramatic monologue. Take a step outside of yourself and write from the perspective of someone else. Speaking in the voice of someone else, real or fictional, gives you an interesting new perspective from which to write about your loss. This poem is one of my favorites because I remember my baby brother and by baby cousin, Karen, with their stuffed animal monkeys. I was so touched when she shared this story with me, I wrote this poem about it.


February 1, 2014

Think about writing about your loss in reverse. What if you could go back? What steps would occur? What would you reclaim first? What are the big take backs? What are the small take backs? Most importantly, what is the one last restorative moment?

I know I've thought about this topic more than once.

The inspiration for this exercise came from Kurt Vonnegut and Matt Rasmussen.

In Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim, the main character, is "unstuck in time." Psychically wounded by the horrors he witnesses during World War II, he bounces back and forth in time and space. One scene that makes my breath catch is when he watches the late movie backwards.

“He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:” (73-74)

There are two pages describing the movie played in reverse, but basically what happens is:  planes with wounded men fly backwards until the bullets come out of them, then a formation of planes in flames fly backwards until the fires die out, bombers return to base, steel cylinders are shipped back to America and disassembled or in effect never created, harmful minerals are shipped back to miners who hide them in the ground so they can never be found, Hitler and all of humanity turn back into babies until two perfect people are created – Adam and Eve.

This is one of the most powerful passages in the novel. The idea is simple, but it packs a punch. Vonnegut's use of one and two syllable words reinforce the simplicity and multiply the effect.

Rasmussen wrote about the loss of his brother in his poem "Reverse Suicide." You can read it here:

It starts with the guy who purchased his deceased brother's car coming back to return it. Using a mixture of details (big stuff and small stuff) the poem moves through the horrors of the tragic loss with the brother's head reassembling and the brother spitting the bullet out back into the dad's gun. The powerhouse of the poem is its ending. It closes on the image of the dad and the surviving brother pouring bags of autumn leaves back on the lawn under a sky that is growing lighter. They are waiting for the leaves to leap back onto the bare branches.

So much is said in that final image. The sad futility and hopelessness of the wish to turn back time is evident, yet the desire to do so, to try anyway is strong, raw, and unashamed of its lack of grounding in reality.

Vonnegut ends with two perfect people: Adam and Eve. He too conveys the same message.

So, give it a shot. Write your own loss in reverse.