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Essay

Heather Simeney MacLeod on Karen Connelly's "How Clean You Have Become"

(How Poems Work, August 2005)
Karen Connelly’s “How Clean You Have Become” is a poem of the experience that follows mourning. It illustrates the loss which occurs after grieving has passed, as our memories diffuse, slip away from us. It speaks of what we are left with in the wake of not only the loss of the person but also the loss of grief and the loss of memory. “In the end, the edges of memory/ are licked smooth/ by the rough tongue of time,/ wiped clean./ All you did was beautiful, and good.” In the aftermath of mourning, the poem indicates, we in essence rebuild those we have lost. The dead, or more aptly our recollections of the dead, become regulated to a type of purgatory where we, the living, choose to ignore sins and scars. We choose forgetfulness and push recollection to the margins of consciousness….

Karen Connelly’s “How Clean You Have Become” is a poem of the experience that follows mourning. It illustrates the loss which occurs after grieving has passed, as our memories diffuse, slip away from us. It speaks of what we are left with in the wake of not only the loss of the person but also the loss of grief and the loss of memory. “In the end, the edges of memory/ are licked smooth/ by the rough tongue of time,/ wiped clean./ All you did was beautiful, and good.” In the aftermath of mourning, the poem indicates, we in essence rebuild those we have lost. The dead, or more aptly our recollections of the dead, become regulated to a type of purgatory where we, the living, choose to ignore sins and scars. We choose forgetfulness and push recollection to the margins of consciousness.


Karen Connelly’s “How Clean You Have Become” is a poem of the experience that follows mourning. It illustrates the loss which occurs after grieving has passed, as our memories diffuse, slip away from us. It speaks of what we are left with in the wake of not only the loss of the person but also the loss of grief and the loss of memory. “In the end, the edges of memory/ are licked smooth/ by the rough tongue of time,/ wiped clean./ All you did was beautiful, and good.” In the aftermath of mourning, the poem indicates, we in essence rebuild those we have lost. The dead, or more aptly our recollections of the dead, become regulated to a type of purgatory where we, the living, choose to ignore sins and scars. We choose forgetfulness and push recollection to the margins of consciousness.
There is an unwavering, overwhelming sense of power in choosing to look away, in choosing to be unaware, “I am a salamander in a deep cave./ My sunless skin breathes/ cell by cell/ over my eyes.” There is far more than a slip backwards in this passage. Connelly evokes the desire to slip into a primitive form–one capable of sustaining blindness with sight that, if not in a simultaneous fashion, then at the very least one which allows sight and sightlessness to exist side by side.
This desire for two disparate factions to co-exist returns in the following stanza. It is as if what the speaker of the poem truly desires is a way back into mourning without the blunt truth of fresh memories accompanied as they are with regret. Rather, the speaker appears to desire the tempered memories afforded to the grieving after we have stepped from mourning and our recollections have grown dim. However, Connelly understands that just as angel and devil cannot mingle within one form, a woman cannot sustain sight and blindness at the same moment, or even alternately. In the end, the speaker returns to the knowing which comes after mourning distant memories, “With the downward slide of days, / how clean you have become, /how lovely.”
Personally, I find this poem of particular merit because it isn’t looking at loss in a sentimental fashion, but instead Connelly stares at it head-on and she doesn’t flinch. Even the natural, normal need of those mourning loved ones to paint them beautiful, to make them clean, is faced-up as the expected spiral of forgetfulness the dead leave us, the living, with. It can’t be helped. The poem is apologetic without being saccharine, and it is filled with the regret of outliving the dead without being angry. It says with an astounding simplicity: Here I am carrying on without you and doing the best I am able, such as that is.