Tom Lombardo is not an expert on recovery. As he puts it, “I’m just a guy who has lived it.” For 23 years.
The event that plunged Lombardo, now 58 and residing in Atlanta, into recovery was the death of his first wife, Lana, in a car accident in 1985. The couple, then living in Knoxville, Tenn., had been married for seven years. Lombardo, a journalist, was 34 and suddenly a widower with no peers who could identify with his grief and recovery.
Platitudes were useless. The last words he wanted to hear were, “You’ll get over this.” He tried a self-help book and cast it aside after three chapters. He tried therapy. “That didn’t work.”
“All I wanted was the love of my family and friends,” Lombardo says.
And some books.
“I buried myself in reading,” he says.
He cauterized his grief with the “thickest, most boring book” he could find: a biography of Gen. Horace Porter, one of Ulysses S. Grant’s top aides in the Wilderness Campaign. “I thought that would put me to sleep each night—and generally, it did.”
But Lombardo also turned to poets whose work he had studied in high school and college, among them Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot and e.e. cummings. “Not a soothing group,” he says, “not the poetry of recovery.” The patterned language, however, provided solace and connected him with a period in his life that had been more settled.
He found few poems that echoed the process of grief and recovery that had come to define his life, until a copy of Douglas Dunn’s Elegies, bestowed on Lombardo by a friend, brought unexpected companionship. Dunn’s slender volume, England’s Whitbread Book of the Year in 1985, examined the geography of his own wife’s illness and death from cancer. “I realized there could be poets who were actually writing about this,” Lombardo says. In 1998, Donald Hall’s collection of poems Without, about the death of his wife, poet Jane Kenyon, delivered additional comfort.
Now, almost a quarter century later, Lombardo has produced a resource that he himself once sorely needed: After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events. The anthology gathers the work of 115 poets from 15 nations, among them Dunn, Hall and other prominent poets, as well as emerging and regionally known poets. All grapple with the personal journey that unfolds after such trauma as illness and abuse, divorce and addiction, the death of a spouse or a child, exile and war, and other loss. The book stems not only from Lombardo’s own experience but also from his avocation as a creative writer, which led him from occasional “noodling around” with poems to a master of fine arts degree, earned in 2003, to an as-yet-unpublished manuscript of poetry, and finally to the recognition that his gift in the field of poetry lies first and foremost as an editor.
Q. This anthology marks a bittersweet milestone in your own recovery, doesn’t it?
A. Yes. It all spirals out from that day, April 13, 1985, when my wife, Lana, was killed. Now, something good has come out of that tragedy. The experiences of the poets in After Shocks, and others who submitted poems, have somehow merged with mine. We’ve formed this community of people who are sharing their stories of recovery.
Q. Talk a little about what you have learned about recovery.
A. You may come to some form of acceptance, but you never fully recover. There is no closure, no finish line. Life-shattering events—the death of a spouse, exile, divorce—force you off the path you have been on. You cannot return to the person you were. You have to find a new normal, maybe better, maybe not.
Q. And for you—is life better?
A. I almost feel guilty—I do feel guilty sometimes—that I am surviving, that I have adapted, but I have a wonderful life now. I’m remarried, and I have two lovely children. When I consider the state I was in—the fog, the shock—and how I feel now, it’s amazing I’ve gotten this far. But I’m still recovering, I still bear the mark of a widower, and I still think about Lana and experience grief in some form every day.