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.
* * *
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.
The book’s third section, “That This,” is composed of seven brief lyrics, all but one in bifurcated quatrains, in which Howe reflects on the conditions of her book’s making:
Is one mind put into another
in us unknown to ourselves
by going about among trees
and fields in moonlight or in
a garden to ease distance to fetch home spiritual things
By “spiritual things” Howe means her devotion to certain practices of representation. Despite the book’s concisely minimal visual form, That This is not a work of ekphrasis or animation. Instead, the mourner carries the absent loved one within as conscience, beyond the need for manifested presence. Mourning is given form, and eventually closure, as words and phrases, fragmented and deliquescent, gradually echo and respond to one another, their slow cohesion an antidote to death’s apparent suddenness. Howe’s repeated images of mirrors are not only metaphors of being’s relation to appearance but also explorations of love’s capacity to “mirror” even vanished objects. Increasingly, Howe expresses a desire to penetrate the phenomenal—to grasp what existed before the organization of perception. Such penetration is, of course, impossible, but if she could close the gap between the dead’s “that” and the living’s “this,” then the tragic, incommensurable separation between presence and absence would finally be breached and mourning no longer necessary. In the end Howe’s is a secular heaven of love’s connections, no less moving for having been homemade through her elegy.
* * *
Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s Heavenly Questions traces, with a hallucinatory tenderness, her efforts to draw significance from the final phases of the long illness, hospitalization and death of her husband, Robert Nozick, who was also a philosopher. To do so she turns to the most archaic resources—the relentless bodily rhythm of grief, drummed through six poems of unabated iambic pentameter:
And nothing lost, but found and found again;
And not conquest, but everything in play
Given, not taken; taken anyway,
And not to keep in any case; but kept;
Possessed, but not in order to possess;
Selfsame, self-owned, self-given, self-possessed,
And all in play. But conquered nonetheless.
“Given, not taken; taken anyway”: Schnackenberg subjects key terms—“taken,” “found,” “possessed”—to the possibility of negation. The effect is like desperately trying locks or searching for a hidden door.
The pattern of breakdown and recombination also shapes the book’s narrative, as Schnackenberg turns to religious traditions to find some means of coherence in things at once split and gathered. Looking to the fifth, fourth and third centuries BCE, she draws on various kinds of Buddhist, Hindu and Greek wisdom literature and a number of later literary texts. The narrative is framed by an image of the ancient Syracusan inventor Archimedes working on his “Sand-Reckoner,” a mathematical experiment to determine how many grains of sand would be needed to fill the universe. His labors are recounted as a lullaby:
And water waves sweep back and forth again,
Materialize, and dematerialize,
Retrieving counted grains and dropping more
Uncounted grains in heaps along a shore
Of granite-particled infinities,
Archimedes’ grains gather toward a conjectured, mathematical whole that can be grasped only by the mind. In a companion piece, “Fusiturricula Lullaby,” Schnackenberg writes that “In violet-brown across a spiral shell: A record of volutions fills a scroll/[…] As X goes to infinity.” She seeks comfort and sleep, and the end of suffering, as she is lulled by these marvelous accounts of infinity. They protect her against the claustrophobic confines of the hospital, the telephone booth, even her winter coat, as, during her husband’s last days, her mind races between hope and despair.
Though armed with enduring and farflung metaphysical allusions, Schnackenberg records many of the brute facts of her beloved’s illness and death, including his doctors’ use of the absurdly named narcotic analgesic Sublimaze. Taking up her pencil, a “Venus Velvet No. 2,” she stages a kind of war between writing and ending—a war she cannot win but can at the least narrate and shape. In the middle of her book she eulogizes her husband, noting first his spiritual characteristics:
Nothing denied, held back, or kept apart.
And never lost his gentle ways with me.
And wanted power over no one else,
But master of his heart, and of himself,
And then his physical ones: “His profile marble-carved, noble, sun-warmed,/Even at night, in winter, ruddy-tinged./…The red-lit aureate curving of his ear,/Warm-blooded velvet, made for lips to find.”
She recounts, as the sequences come to a close, the self-reflexive story from the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata of the composition of the Vedas. When Vyasa, the scribe of Hindu Vedas, dictated the epic to the elephant deity Ganesh, Ganesh’s pen stopped working, so he broke off one of his tusks and continued writing with it. In Schnackenberg’s account, this god of writers rushes to record the names of the dead, the stories of wars and the origin of chess. The poet analogously seems to force herself to keep writing: the game, the play, of life must be sustained, as steadily as a heartbeat or the beat of her pentameter, and she links this persistence to the death-defying chess games of lovers fending off assassins, the storytelling of Scheherazade and the moonlit verbal dueling of Jessica and Lorenzo at the end of The Merchant of Venice as they survey the tragedies of lovers who have lost a love to death. The heartbreaking conclusion to Heavenly Questions will inevitably be the end of its heartbeats. Writing cannot stave off death, and an elegy can never do enough to conjure up the departed:
I stood, barefoot and powerless, and heard
The distant drum in heaven begin to beat
That takes up when a heart falls motionless.
I stood instinctively to hear the call.
Beyond the muffled noise of our goodbyes,
The bindings falling from the swaddled drum
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.
* * *
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.