Death eventually comes knocking, but before it does, a person might as well pass the time writing poetry. Bill Holm implies as much in “Ars Poetica,” one of his many until-now-unpublished poems included in The Chain Letter of the Soul, printed and posthumously distributed by Milkweed Editions in October 2009 after Holm passed away unexpectedly earlier that year from pneumonia.
Along with new work by Holm, The Chain Letter of the Soul recounts treasures from some of his previous works, The Dead Get By With Everything, Boxelder Bug Variations, and Playing the Black Piano. The book itself is named after a phrase in an application Holm made to the McKnight Foundation to support the time he spent crafting his final batch of new poems: “I have written and intend to continue until someone among you takes up the happy work of keeping the chain letter of the soul moving along into whatever future will come.”
Serendipitous and poignant, many of the poems track Holm’s own emotional negotiation of life, death, and infinity. Through images steeped in landscape, people, wildlife, technology, and music, he questions why death is difficult to accept, what mundane day-to-day moments can teach, and what it means to be human. Take the outset of one of the last poems he wrote, “I Began the Day in My Sixty-Fifth Year,” in which Holm says he asks “himself questions that nobody else has bothered to ask.” By sharing these intimate exchanges with readers, Holm seems to have understood – even if intuitively – how his creativity would continue to resonate much farther than his own abruptly ended life.
The Chain Letter of the Soul is an appropriate entry point for those unfamiliar with Holm, and it offers touching closure for readers already acquainted with his work. The book holds nearly 100 previously unreleased poems, well worth the investment, even though the end of the “Storm Coming to Seattle” section seemed a bit rushed. Please consider The Chain Letter of the Soul as highly recommended and especially so while enjoyed aloud with Mozart or Beethoven, preferably performed on piano, playing in the background.
Claudia Broman lives in Ashland, Wisconsin. Her poetry has appeared in Writing Nature: An Annual of Fine Nature Writing and Drawing.