Discandied: On Women and Elegy
Poets writing in English have long learned to mourn from classical precedents. They have drawn on a tradition of pastoral elegies, which incorporate the dead into the cycles of nature, that runs from Theocritus’ Idylls to John Milton’s “Lycidas” and Percy Shelley’s “Adonais.” They have also found inspiration in a tradition of piercing lyric expressions of loss stretching from Catullus’ 101 (Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus) to William Wordsworth’s “Surprised by Joy” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” More often writing soliloquies of suffering and consolation than collective songs like the dirge, elegists have discovered that lyric sequences can provide a powerful means of addressing the tensions between grief’s inchoate emotion and social rituals of mourning. Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” begun at the news of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam’s death in 1833 and published in 1850, became a pathbreaking example of sustained lyric lament. Thomas Hardy’s searching, ambivalent reflections upon the death of his first wife in his magisterial Poems 1912–1913 later provided an important model for book-length elegiac sequences, among them Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters (1998), with its belated address to Hughes’s first wife, Sylvia Plath, and the Milanese poet Milo De Angelis’s Tema dell’addio (Theme of Farewell), from 2005, a meditation on the early death of De Angelis’s wife, the poet Giovanna Sicari.
In recent years, however, it has been women elegists who, like the Roman epigrammatists of the first century and the British sonneteers of the sixteenth century, are breaking new ground with an established form. Writing most often about deaths within their families, these writers have produced few single or book-length elegies about the demise of public figures; for them, the elegy remains, paradoxically, a public declaration of private emotions. In her prizewinning collection of poems called, simply, Elegy (2007), Mary Jo Bang explores with great anguish the inherently violent and unnatural relation to time experienced by a parent who has lost a child. Here is the conclusion of a poem called “The Role of Elegy”:
What is left but this:
The compulsion to tell.
The transient distraction of ink on cloth
One scrubbed and scrubbed
But couldn’t make less.
Not then, not soon.
Each day, a new caption on the cartoon
Ending that simply cannot be.
One hears repeatedly, the role of elegy is.
“What is left” in the poem are grief’s distinctive valences: the tension between compulsion and distraction; the slippage between commemoration and obliteration; the burden placed on the mourner by the assumptions and demands of others. Bang also negotiates the tension—famously explained by Freud—between melancholia, an endless process of painful repetition, and mourning, with its gradual movement toward closure.
How deeply we might comprehend formal expressions of grief, and whether such comprehension leads to understanding and sympathy, remain open questions. Recent prose memoirs by grieving family members, such as Joan Didion’s harrowing The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story (2011) and Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye (2011), trace a mourner’s growing self-knowledge as her life is changed and the dead come into clearer, often disconcerting, perspective. These narrative accounts of traumatic loss necessarily repeat and encompass it, acknowledging, if not an afterlife, at least an aftermath. Writers of recent poetic elegies, however, do not rely on this kind of narrative form alone, if at all. In the past year four women poets have joined Bang in publishing book-length elegies of marked formal originality: Susan Howe, with That This; Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and her Heavenly Questions; Anne Carson, with Nox; and C.D. Wright, One With Others. Carson mourns a brother; Wright, a friend; and Howe and Schnackenberg, husbands. What is perhaps most striking about these books is the formal singularity of each poet’s lament. Schnackenberg adheres to a relentless iambic pentameter throughout a six-poem sequence, whereas Howe, Carson and Wright each set the sung emotions of lyric against prose passages, textual fragments, visual images and even research notes.
In earlier times, when a woman’s response to the death of a beloved may have been limited to suicide, euphemism or enforced silence, these shaped works of art would not have existed. Euripides described how Hecuba, confronting the death of two of her children at the end of the Trojan War, turned into a dog; Ovid and Dante later retold the story, describing her grief-stricken, barking cries. Pericles’ funeral oration for the dead Athenians at the onset of the Peloponnesian War famously directed women survivors, whether mothers or wives, to control themselves and refrain from speaking of their sorrow in public. In other eras and cultures—including ancient Egypt and Syria, and contemporary Sardinia—women have served as professional mourners, beating their breasts and unleashing unintelligible cries. If these masterful new elegies have a ritual function, it is not to reintegrate the community around the body of the dead, as Dylan Thomas did when he wrote, for the survivors of the Blitz as much as anyone, his poem “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.” Instead, these elegies summon the creative forces that are the poet’s stay against the world’s destruction—whether catastrophic or accidental, the work of an embolism or a wayward cell.
Perhaps paradoxically, these elegies may owe some of their originality to the fact that in many first-world cultures, collective and sacred rituals of mourning and burial have declined or disappeared. Such rituals have been replaced by what Wallace Stevens called “the mythology of modern death”: extemporary rites that place an increasing emphasis on individual histories and character. As early as 1731, Jonathan Swift took matters into his own hands and wrote an elegy for himself, “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D.,” fourteen years before his actual death. He proclaimed: “The time is not remote, when I/Must by the Course of Nature dye:/When I foresee my special Friends,/Will try to find their private Ends:/Tho it is hardly understood/Which way my Death can do them good.” Today people have taken to arranging their own “pre-” or “living” funerals, thereby creating an occasion to eulogize their lives and perhaps attempt to satisfy their vanity or curiosity by hearing how they might be mourned by family and friends. As traditions of mourning wane, women’s role as designated mourners has also vanished. In consequence, the woman elegist must summon her own resources as an artist.
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As That This opens, Susan Howe immerses us in an unexpected fact: the deictic “that this” of the death of her husband, the philosopher Peter Hare, in his sleep in January 2008. Howe was already a widow, and Hare a widower, when they married in late adulthood; and Howe, who in the face of Hare’s death is at once shocked and tragically knowing, stresses that loss hovers always over experience, its suddenness an illusion. Her elegy traces the strange mutuality and division between “that,” the unknowable world of the dead, and “this,” the world of the living. Drawing on the spiritual traditions of North American Protestantism, she searches for whatever may persist in memory and influence beyond an embodied life.
In Howe’s many works of poetry and prose, the history of earlier thinkers and artists has priority over sensual experience. Yet such history, made material by citation, becomes the sensual matter of her art. In That This Howe draws on and alludes to the letters and tracts of the Jonathan Edwards family, the semiotic treatises of the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and the pastoral landscapes of the neoclassical painter Nicolas Poussin. Each of these bodies of work has a particular resonance to her life with Hare: she was studying the Edwards documents at the time of his death; a mutual interest in Peirce first drew the couple together; and the 2008 Poussin exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with its great paintings on the themes of Arcadian vision and sudden death, proved a consolation in her initial period of grief. She says of these voices and images, quoting W.H. Auden’s The Sea and The Mirror, that they “reach and reach” and never touch, yet she does touch the words and viewpoints of the past and hauntingly makes them her own.
That This has three sections and a final fragment. The first section, “The Disappearance Approach,” is a direct prose narration of Hare’s death punctuated by reflections and citations from Howe’s reading. “Frolic Architecture,” a phrase borrowed from Ralph Waldo Emerson, is the title of the long second section, an interlude of ripped and rearranged passages from a copy of the diary of Edwards’s sister, Hannah Edwards Wetmore (1713–73), who writes of her certainty that “our lives are all exceeding brittle and uncertain.” Arranged in various patterns and shapes on the page, the fragments seem not only scattered but also suspended, twisted and vulnerable to damage, an impression enhanced by their juxtaposition to six shadowy, abstract black-and-white photograms. Made by James Welling, the photograms evoke shapes viewed in water and the shapes of water itself, an effect Welling achieved by putting layers of paint between layers of Mylar applied to photosensitive paper. Water, eroder of all forms, recurs at intervals and seems to fill the pages, whereas the slight inscriptions of the diary fragments seem shakily held by a breath and about to vanish.