Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2007 | Reviews

Letters to Kate: Life after Life by Carl Klaus

By Jen Knights
A UI writing professor shares the lessons learned from the loss of his beloved.

Letters to Kate: Life After Life by Carl Klaus, University of Iowa Press (http://uipress.uiowa.edu), 192 pp, $22.95

Carl Klaus's wife of 35 years died abruptly in November 2002, struck down by a sudden brain hemorrhage that couldn't have been anticipated. One week later, Klaus began writing letters to his late wife, Kate, as a way to process his grief and keep her close to him, even in death.

In Letters to Kate: Life After Life, Klaus offers his candid account of a widower's grieving process, one that is both heartbreaking and reassuring, alternately piercing and soothing.

It should come as no surprise that Klaus would turn to writing to work through such a stunning loss. Founding director of the UI Nonfiction Writing Program and professor emeritus of English at the UI, Klaus is a diarist, essayist, and author of My Vegetable Love, its companion Weathering Winter, and Taking Retirement.

Klaus's letters are frank, tender, and heart-wrenching — but also peppered with astute literary references, knowledgeable asides about gardening, and occasional descriptions of mouthwatering meals with friends. It's just the kind of conversation that I imagine the late Kate Franks Klaus, 67MFA, would have enjoyed, and it's clear that the passages were truly written with her in mind rather than for public consumption. As such, it could have proven to be full of self-indulgent and overwrought prose, the sentimental ramblings of an old professor. It is, and it's not.

Through reading Klaus's Letters to Kate, we learn that Kate was pragmatic, clever, blunt, and (mostly) far from sentimental — not just a beloved spouse, but also an intellectual equal and Klaus's most respected editor. Even after death, her no-nonsense attitude tempers his grief as he writes.

"Already I can hear your unmistakable commands," Klaus writes, imagining Kate's voice. "Enough of the tears. Enough of the mush. Just tell me what happened, and what's been happening since then. Just like the obituary."

Try as he might to follow the imagined admonishments of his wife, Klaus does allow the tears and the mush to enter into his letters — in accounts of being "swept away" by the sight of her clothes in the closet, overcome by feelings of guilt when he first begins to enjoy life again, and reduced to tears by the offhand remark of a stranger. Readers are richer for such occasional sentiment and self-indulgence.

Letters to Kate offers an honest and unflinching look at the universal emotions that come to those who are left behind when a loved one dies: "A life after death in language." Even Klaus admits that Kate might call it an "absurd project" — but, as he writes eight months after her death, "a life in words is more durable than flesh and blood."

Klaus's stories and reflections on loss and love amount to more than the tearful mourning of a bereaved spouse. Ultimately, Letters to Kate is a tribute to the love of a lifetime, a potent account of the human process of grief, and a beautifully crafted expression of transcendence over pain.