There’s a shadow looming over If You Have To Go—the poignantly-titled and brilliant collection of poetry from Katie Ford—and it’s the dissolution of Ford’s marriage. Each poem within the collection is either softly shaded by the event or completely subsumed in its darkness. She grasps for meaning in small objects, flickering moments of peace amidst the pain, and communion with the divine. That none of these seem to provide solace only makes her journey that much more devastating and beautiful.
Ford makes a bold choice early on. She’s written the core of the collection as sonnets. Though the form of the sonnet has evolved dramatically since its invention in the 13th century, sonnets are still commonly associated with the romantic sentiments of poets like Shakespeare and Keats. Ford’s work offers no such sweetness, but neither is there irony to her decision. Bundled together under the chapter heading “Addresses,” the sonnets make small discourses directed to herself, her ex, and the universe at large.
The density of these “Addresses” requires a slow read. Ford packs so much imagery and detail into each line that some poems take a few minutes to recover from—like the “23rd Address” which begins, “You without me, you without me / three little Christmas bells chime for a coin / outside the shop inside me. ‘Anything will do’ / is the world’s loneliest philosophy.” It’s a heartbreaking vision of a bruised soul trying to navigate the holidays, and it only gets more affecting as it continues.
If You Have To Go closes with as soft a landing as Ford can allow herself without being cloying or false. She sees a small reflection in the fraying marriage of two friends, using the symbol of an elk that came to sleep on the couple’s porch to represent the ugly thud of a relationship’s end. She finds agency in the final poem “All I Ever Wanted” (“In the middle of my life / it was right to say my desires”) and in her simple plea “to sit by a fire with someone / who wanted me in measure the same to my wanting.” Even if you have never been through the trials of a divorce, or even a serious heartbreak, those lines still thrum a chord deep within.