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The University of Edinburgh's three creative writing prizes, open for 2024 submissions
Kiefer Holland: The Kübler-Ross Sonnets

Kiefer Holland: The Kübler-Ross Sonnets

Kiefer Holland was the recipient of a special mention of The Grierson Verse Prize 2021.

As someone who tends to write in free verse, writing for the Grierson Verse Prize presented me with the challenge to return to a much more traditional form, which I enjoyed. Writing for the prize also prompted me to write a sequence of poems rather than a standalone poem; something that I have always wanted to do but have equally always lacked the impetus to attempt. Having chosen to work with sonnets, I knew that a sequence of five would fit within the line limit, and the Kübler-Ross model (the “five stages of grief”) seemed a good match for the award’s theme of “recovery”.

The Kübler-Ross Sonnets

My lyre is tuned to mourning,

and my pipe to the sound of wailing.

(Job, 30:31)



It’s just an unanswered knock at a door;

Just a rap breaking the tender silence

Of this ever-darkening corridor;

Impenetrable without your guidance.

They are just slippers set down to one side –

Comfy footwear for any kerfuffle.

The carpet awaits their whispering slide;

Still clings to static from their soft shuffle.

It is just a phone, hanging on the wall,

Storing an always unneeded voicemail,

Waiting; hopeful for an uncoming call,

Waiting and waiting, but to no avail.

We wait too, standing on the other side,

Imagining the door opening wide.



A flag on a vial. The vilest of things;

A needling reminder that we don’t change;

Of the greedy hopes that hopelessness brings.

Grimness compounded by not being strange.

Readily prophets rise from all losses,

Snake oil salesmen will nationalise pain –

Those vultures appraise skeletal masses,

And harvest sorrow for what they might gain.

Above all tolls the great Downing Street bell:

“Alas! Alas! But we’re joined in a cause!”

“Unite, for Queen and country!” calls the knell;

Requests we rest easy in gilded paws;

Leeches feeling from personal goodbyes;

Shoulders our coffins, chants merry old lies.



There is a legend amongst the family:

Kind God steals our most beloved in parts;

It being crueller to snatch them sharply,

Than to take them from us in fits and starts.

Golden hands avoid organs too vital –

Thieve only to tell us what is coming,

Knowing the family might deem it spiteful,

To swiftly break what had been well running.

Yet steady bereavement hurts all the same;

The earthbound struggle for consolation,

In the delicate tug of Heaven’s claim,

Which only protracts their desolation.

Still, who would argue, as the loved depart,

That God was greedy for grasping their heart?



Some sleep on, to defer to till tomorrow,

Harrowing thoughts that loom over waking.

Or use TV to stifle their sorrow

(Light and noise to drown out the soul’s aching).

Others drink to dampen a screaming mind,

Or drug its shouts into something gentler,

Hoping that oblivion will be kind,

Or perhaps something else altogether…

Yet more attempt to exercise away

The crueller plagues of imagination;

To muscle on through their unhappy day;

To evade sadness in enervation.

But these routes can’t always comfort or heal

Those with an inability to feel.



It is only the closing of a world;

Two eyelids delicately pressing shut

The reality a lifetime unfurled;

A thread of experience gone; not cut.

Another door locked with another groan,

Forever closed to that dark corridor

(We sense its presence, but it’s never known);

That infinite space after and before.

That gloomy prospect can break the mind’s might;

Wilting it like a flower untended.

But unsunned flowers twist towards the light;

Straining for a hope barely remembered.

Days come when no gleam of relief seems there,

Tender kindness keeps them blissfully rare.


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