What would it mean to express “primal and direct” grief in poetry? If you’re grieving primally, why would you—how could you—write a poem at all? On the other hand, if you’re grieving through something as indirect as a poem, why not make it emphatically artificial, like a fanciful death mask that only accentuates the blank stare behind it?
Following a logic of this kind, Schnackenberg’s best poems play form against theme, to the point of subverting form altogether. They are virtuoso creations that mock their own virtuosity, exposing the hollowness beneath the dazzle. They remind us that even in a postmodern, post-Einstein world, the norm in our lives is an illusory order: a coherence we construct and believe in until tragedy gives it the lie.
In this respect, her work itself is impressively coherent. “Nightfishing,” the first poem of her first volume (Portraits and Elegies, 1982), marks out a stretch of waters in which she’s been casting nets ever since. An elegy for her father, it begins by describing a scene painted on a clock:
A smiling moon as it dips down below
Two hemispheres, stars numberless as days,
And peas, tomatoes, onions, as they grow
Under that happy sky; but though the sands
Of time put on this vegetable disguise,
The clock covers its face with long, thin hands.
Another smiling moon begins to rise.
Here we have, literally, a clockwork universe, whose cheerful abundance is artificial: a “disguise.” Yet the face of the clock can hide only behind “thin hands”—an inadequate disguise, which seems the projection of some fear or grief on the part of the speaker.
From the kitchen we are transported to a remembered childhood scene: the speaker on a rowboat with her father. They fish. He smokes. A bat flies by; she shrieks. For the first time she associates a “thought of death” with him. The moon falls. They twirl their oars. Finally we’re back in the kitchen, and he is “three days dead”:
White stars and vegetables. The sky is blue.
Clock hands sweep by it all, they twirl around,
Pushing me, oarless, from the shore of you.
For all the speaker has lost, the poem has never abandoned its composure. Its intricate conceit is perfectly orchestrated from start to finish; the young Schnackenberg has already announced herself as a modern metaphysical poet. The verse runs like clockwork. So does the painted world on the clock. So does the real world of the speaker—except for the bat. And the death.
What if the form of this poem had rebelled against the clock’s sinister precision? What if Schnackenberg had roughened the meter or broken a line or two in half? In that case the poem would have taken a stand against artifice, made a good-faith attempt to embody the messy reality of death. Instead it maintains a sort of complicity with the clock, which never misses a beat. It’s as if the poet were saying: here is a small, perfect work of art. It neatly, even wittily encapsulates the experience of losing my father. And in its very perfection, it is a terrible lie.
— from "Elegance in Elegy" by Austin Allen
— from "Nick Cave's Love Song Lecture"
The cologne is stowed away in a dresser drawer. I have the bottles lying in a shoe box alongside his shaving kit. I still remember the way the bathroom smelled after he took a shower, how his aftershave perfumed the air for hours. I used to just breathe that scent in, and I felt he was part of me. I remember his clean-shaven face and also the times when he had a beard, which tickled my face when he kissed me. I can see his face as I write this. I am crying but I am also smiling. I've found him again, I have brought him back.
Em um cemitério como jardim antigo,
o velório é espectro masoquista,
ritual que abandono ao sair da sala.
Tudo tão rápido, uma tarde é o fim,
então se senta num banco de pedra,
olha para a dança dos galhos e vê
a dama de ar fazer a sua saudação.
E ao acenar, o vento entra e sai,
como a vida que não passa mais
pelo ataúde de minutos atrás.
Pois a face do corpo morto
se veste de todos os vivos
e isso desperta dor em meio
à tranquilidade de seu repouso.
É algo que nos mudou,
deu-nos o vazio que é somente
a maior prova de substância.
In a graveyard, an ancient garden,
the wake is masochistic specter,
a ritual I abandon by leaving the room.
Everything is so fast,
an afternoon is the end.
Then, sitting on a stone bench,
I look at the dancing boughs and see
a woman in the wind send her regards.
And, waving, the wind comes and goes
like the life that no longer flows
through the coffin of minutes ago
The face of the dead body
covers itself with all the living
and awakens pain in us amidst
the tranquility of his rest.
It is something that changed us
gave us the hollow that is only
the greater proof of substance.
(*) Amarais is a graveyard in Campinas, state of São Paulo, Brazil. It has old and majestic trees, while there are no graves, but a beautiful and small field.
— excerpt from The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression by Darian Leader
the transparency of the windowpane
reminds me that outside there is the world.
I contemplate the brightly lit city,
the cars going by,
the teenager who meets
his girlfriend on a corner,
the passing bicyclist,
the athlete running across the park meadow.
Pondering the fragility of time
I contemplate the world,
the window again,
the reunited family,
and I am thinking that my father no longer speaks
or sees or hears,
that his dead senses
are beginning to perceive the theater of the world
that the only memory of his life
is what lies in the fragments of our memory:
an immense puzzle with missing pieces.
what must he be thinking about as he leaves himself behind?
My mother’s skin?
Newsreels from the Second World War?
First communion and the commandments?
The tumors spreading through his body?
My father, stammering,
says he has a stone in his throat,
it won’t fall,
he’s going to fall with it,
To where? In what place?
Translated by Reginald Gibbons
Now that he is dead, my mind fears the last moments to come. When I hang up the phone after talking to my mother I wonder if that is the last time I will hear her voice. When we part, I wonder if that will be the last time I touch her. I save all her voicemails and texts. I must preserve what hasn't yet vanished. I must prepare myself for the unfathomable moment of her disappearance. And still it is not enough. I'm like a prophet: I can see it all before it happens, and I am terrified. I tell myself not to live this way, I tell myself there is still time, but the fear is always there--the fear of the last call, the last touch, the last moment.
And what were my father's last moments like? I think about them. When his body stopped, what did he feel inside? When the light lapsed and the life ceased and his heart went still, did he think of me or my mother or his own parents? When death came, did he know he was loved?
He died alone. I was not there. I was somewhere else. The sky was blue and I didn't feel a thing. He was destroyed and I didn't feel a thing.
I lie in bed most of the day and tell my mother I went to class. She doesn't know how much I cry. She doesn't know I am devastated.
I keep trying to touch what should not be touched. I keep trying to speak but my mouth won't open. This is me writing my emptiness. How do I live with it?
I should have plans and dreams and I pretend to but, inside, I know I will never escape my past, my grief, myself.
I want to buy a locket and put a picture of my father in it. When I am alone, I want to open the locket and see his face, hold him in my hands.
I want to tell him I am drowning. I want him to come and save me.
"My teacher, Jacques Derrida, considered various forms of mourning disorder — the difficulty we have in letting go of a beloved object or libidinal position. Freud says that we go into mourning over lost ideals or figures, which include persons or even your country when it lets you down. Loss that cannot be assimilated or dealt with creates pockets of resistance in the psyche. One may incorporate a phantom other, keeping the other both alive and dead, or one may fall into states of melancholy, unable to move on, trapped in the energies of an ever-shrinking world.
"Many of the themes in films give expression to failed mourning, a relation to death that invents the population of the undead — vampires, zombies, trolls, real housewives of Beverly Hills. In America, we are often encouraged to “let go,” “move on,” “get over it,” even to “get a life,” locutions that indicate a national intolerance for prolonged states of mourning. Yet the quickened pace of letting go may well mean that we have not let go, that we are haunted and hounded by unmetabolized aspects of loss. In Freud’s work, the timer is set for two years of appropriate mourning. When Hamlet tries to extend that deadline, the whole house threatens to fall apart, and he is admonished by Claudius to get over himself, man up. The inability to mourn or let go is sometimes called melancholy. Many of us have slipped into states of melancholic depression for one reason or another, for one unreason or another—one cannot always nail the object that has been lost or causes pain.
"For Derrida, melancholy implies an ethical stance, a relation to loss in the mode of vigilance and constant re-attunement. You do not have to know or understand the meaning of a loss and the full range of its disruptive consequences, but you somehow stand by it, leaning into a depleting emptiness. It takes courage to resist the temptation to bail or distract oneself. Entire industries stand ready to distract the inconsolable mourner."
— from "Stormy Weather: Blues in Winter"
|John Everett Millais - Ophelia (detail), 1851|
And will he not come again?
And will he not come again?
No, no, he is dead,
Go to thy deathbed.
He never will come again.
His beard was as white as snow,
All flaxen was his poll.
He is gone, he is gone,
And we cast away moan,
God ha' mercy on his soul.
Thinking about Ophelia, about how I read Hamlet several months after my father's death and could only focus on the grief within the text. Nothing else mattered. Hamlet was fatherless and so was Ophelia and that meant something to me. Ophelia was grief-stricken, out of control, out of her mind, wandering in the woods, singing to herself, speaking a grief language of her own and I needed access to that. I needed the image of her with the flowers. I thought of her in the waters where she died, her skirts soaked, her body drowning just like I wanted to drown. She was my heroine. I was a quiet girl, a good girl, going to school every day, hiding my grief, only releasing it when I was alone in my room at night. What should a grieving girl, a bleeding girl, do? Rant and rave? Go mad like Ophelia? She never came back from her despair and anguish. She felt it too deeply. She was not spared. And because of this she became my love. I wrote poems about her and collected portraits of her. She became a part of me. We are the grieving girls, the fatherless daughters, the haunted ones, and nothing can save us.