Discandied: On Women and Elegy
The power of elegy, even in the face of an unbounded grief, to provide a containing form is vividly embodied by Anne Carson’s Nox, a nocturne with carefully controlled visual and tactile properties. Nox is printed on a single sheet of accordion-pleated paper that comes packed in a gray linen box the size of a reference book. As the sheet unfolds and each pleat is opened, the reader follows, on the left side of the crease, an etymological commentary, part scholarship, part speculative meditation, upon the ten lines of Catullus’ 101. In this poem, which Carson, an accomplished classicist, first read as a young student of Latin, the ancient poet mourns the death of his brother far from home. On the right side of the crease, juxtaposed to the commentary, Carson traces her belated knowledge of the death of her estranged brother in Copenhagen in 2000.
Carson struggles to mourn the death of someone lost to her many years earlier and whom she barely knew. An itinerant and occasional drug dealer, her brother was accused of being involved in the death of “the love of his life,” a girl who suffered from epilepsy and died under circumstances that are never explained. After eluding the police in 1978, the brother disappeared, and in the twenty-two years that followed he wrote a few “laconic” postcards and “only one letter, to my mother, that winter the girl died.” A journey Carson makes to Copenhagen to learn more about his life and death turns up very little—just a few anecdotes from his widow. Yet the poet also takes a different journey into the past by sorting through scraps of his writing left by her mother and some black-and-white family snapshots that remind her of her brother’s tragic path since childhood. We catch glimpses of the brother’s isolation and self-rationalizations, and the sense of incomprehension bordering on hostility that he bore toward his sister.
The boxed work is a facsimile of a memorial scrapbook handmade by Carson. To turn the folds of paper where images are reproduced—their edges and textures an obvious illusion—creates a trompe l’oeil effect that compounds the work’s dominating mood of distance and belatedness. The inauthenticity of this replica, deliberately amateurish as a work of visual art, beckons to a prior, fleeting presence that constantly recedes before the mourner.
To call Nox a work of poetry seems too superficial a judgment; the text is a sequence of minimal prose fragments, notes the poet has written to herself, where everything—images, correspondence, classical texts, commentary—is treated as if it were a fragment of an ancient poem. When Carson uses “discandied,” a word Shakespeare turns to in Antony and Cleopatra to express the dissolution of sweetness that accompanies disillusionment, the reader feels a certain frisson of recognition comparable to the insights Carson seems to have had by tracing, in retrospection, the revealing postures and shadows in family photographs. Discandied: the word persists, like the proper name of her brother, Michael, a messenger without a message.
As Carson emphasizes in a discussion of Herodotus that comes early in the text, she began her project as a historian—and so must the reader of Nox. Like many elegists, Carson comes to mourn a figure concealed behind the figure in the foreground. Here the concealed figure is Carson’s mother, doomed by the fate of her son, and over the course of the text the reader only gradually glimpses Carson coming to terms with her mother’s acceptance of the brother’s disappearance as an unresolved death—an acceptance that inexorably draws the mother into her own death. “From her point of view, all desire left the world.”
This most desolate and solitary of elegies is a work of salvage; in the end what is truly saved, and saving, is the poet’s powerful and uncanny relation to Catullus’ elegy. It is as though the poem, encountered so early by Carson, was waiting on the other side of adulthood to console her when lived experience offered no comfort. The turn to classical precedent is a calm gesture of ordering; the work of etymology and scholarship, despite the distance of more than two millenniums from the source text, is more fathomable than the relation to a tragic, triadic family.
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C.D. Wright’s One With Others, in contrast, is a civic poem of celebration: a documentary record of the life of Margaret Kaelin McHugh, an Arkansas friend and mentor of Wright who died in September 2004 in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. An autodidact, McHugh was called V by her circle of young acolytes during a period when she was immersed in Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name. V was a native of Kentucky, a Roman Catholic and a mother of seven who maintained a lending library in the living room of her Little Rock house. She was especially fond of Irish poetry. She knew much of Yeats by heart, and in her last days quoted from memory the opening lines of a poem celebrating Anthony Raftery, the blind early nineteenth-century poet from County Mayo, as someone “full of hope and love.”
In the summer of 1969 McHugh volunteered to be a driver, in charge of water and extra shoes, for the civil rights marchers who had congregated around an activist called Sweet Willie Wine. Inspired by James Meredith’s 1966 march from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi, Wine organized a “March Against Fear” from West Memphis to Little Rock. “It was the most alive I ever felt in my life,” McHugh explained, and “I would have followed Sweet Willie Wine into hell.” Her decision to join the marchers ended her marriage and led to her expulsion from Little Rock. Reversing the path of the march, she landed in a rough Memphis hotel, where she met Wright and her circle at the local university.
Wright draws on interviews with dozens of survivors of the period and reconstructs the brutal incidents of racism that preceded and followed the march. Replete with local imagery rendered in sensuous detail—an “Elberta [peach] with the fuzz on”; a sky full of “dingy chenille clouds”—Wright records the many facets of McHugh’s character, from her youth to her death bed. Voices are presented one sentence at a time, intersecting with Wright’s observations:
She was not an eccentric. She was an original. She was congenitally incapable of conforming. She was resolutely resistant.
Her low-hanging fears no match for her contumacy
Grappling hooks in the mud leaf out in the mind
The reader is invited to place these brief patches of oral testimony beside a closing bibliography of established histories of the civil rights movement. Wright explains that “you want to illumine what you see,” and we come to see what is gained by the singing of heroines who are otherwise unsung. McHugh had a mission, armed by literature, to fight hypocrisy, and Wright makes it clear that hypocrisy is the enemy of value. What McHugh wanted was
To feel and transmit/The ethical this
that is not that
In the manner of the panoramic memorials of Walt Whitman’s Drum Taps and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Wright specifies the vocation of each of her speakers, for good or ill—SNCC worker, curator of a county museum, retired welding teacher, scholar, fisherman, teacher, night shift worker, state trooper, veterinarian, district attorney. The social status of each of these “others” is judged and reframed by the actions of the outcast “one” who acts ethically. “You have your life/until you use it. You forfeit the only life you know/or go to your grave with the song curdled inside you./No more damned if you did and damned if you didn’t.” Yet McHugh’s good, full, used-up life is invariably juxtaposed to the lost lives of those who died early in the civil rights struggle. Wright underscores the commitment of those who gave up their lives in a fight to increase the dignity of others’ lives.
As in Carson’s Nox, there is another death behind the death of the figure in the foreground: the suicide, in 1978, by self-inflicted pistol wounds to the heart, of the prolific 30-year-old Arkansas poet Frank Stanford, who was Wright’s companion and artistic collaborator during her youth. Midway through the book, Wright mentions that McHugh provided the photograph she used for the cover of Stanford’s magnum opus, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. Closing the circle with a citation from that work, Wright gives Stanford both the first and the last words of One With Others: “I want people of twenty-seven languages walking back and forth saying to one another hello brother how’s the fishing/and when they reach their destination I don’t want them to forget if it was bad.” With its emphasis on virtue, instruction and ethical action, Wright’s documentary and experimental book has a classical aim. Mourning mingles with delight and instruction, and the death of “one with others” reconfigures our sense of others, and of the purpose of life itself.