Fragments - 2/28/13

Outside, the wind throws my hair into my face. I stand alone, lost in the past, always lost in the irretrievable past. It's one of those days when I don't want to be here in this life. It's not that I want to die, it's that I want to go back to the world before my father's death. I want to eat dinner with him and watch our favorite television shows and kiss him goodnight. I want to be his little girl again.

So little of me is left. Too much has been taken.

The moment I truly lost everything was when I discovered that death is possible.

All I want is to escape into books and poems and films. I want to be filled with something other than these fears, these thoughts, this self. 

I am tired of trying to find the words for my anguish. I am beginning to accept that the words simply do not exist.

Austin Allen on Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Poetry, and Grief

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:

The kitchen’s old-fashioned planter’s clock portrays
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”:

A smiling moon rises on fertile ground,
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

Nick Cave on the Death of his Father

 Looking back at these twenty years a certain clarity prevails. Midst the madness and the mayhem, it would seem I have been banging on one particular drum. I see that my artistic life has centered around an attempt to articulate the nature of an almost palpable sense of loss that has laid claim to my life. A great gaping hole was blasted out of my world by the unexpected death of my father when I was nineteen years old. The way I learned to fill this hole, this void, was to write . My father taught me this as if to prepare me for his own passing[...] I found that language became a poultice to the wounds incurred by the death of my father. Language became a salve to longing.

— from "Nick Cave's Love Song Lecture"

On Reading "The Year of Magical Thinking" by Joan Didion

Last night, I started reading "The Year of Magical Thinking." I devoured fifty pages straight and then had to stop, so overwhelmed by the book that I felt myself almost slipping into a depression. I kept away from it all day but returned to it tonight, reading almost another fifty pages. Didion writes of her husband, John Gregory Dunne's sudden death and the subsequent hospitalization and physical decline of her daughter, Quintana, in prose that is sharp, precise, and exquisite. Her words keep me engaged, almost obsessed, but the content serves as a hook, bringing my own painful memories and traumas to the surface. In her descriptions of the days after John's death, I remember what it was like , for the first time,  to face life without my father. In the scenes at the hospital, I can visualize my own experience of being around doctors and nurses and the horrible reality of death. In her sudden bursts of memory, the "vortex" as she calls it, that pull her back into the past, I recognize my own struggle not to drown in my memories. In the middle of reading the book tonight, I stopped and texted my mother. I needed to tell her that I love and miss her, but she was asleep. I was completely alone, overwhelmed by a deep and violent aching for a past that both haunts and horrifies me. Didion's memoir drags me back to the memorial and the funeral and the immediate aftermath of my father's death and that's a place that is dark, empty, and unbearable, a place I am still trying to crawl out of with my sanity intact. And yet, at the same time, I feel an intense connection to the book, and I will finish it. I knew going into The Grief Project that reading books about loss would be difficult but it's important to go into the fear and the anguish and the grief, it's important to plumb these texts and examine how I respond to them, how they affect me, enrich me, and even devastate me. 


In her memoir, Motherland, Fern Schumer Chapman writes that "smells [...] may be the last thing on earth to die." I am reminded of that quote every time I encounter a scent that reminds me of my father. Nothing incapacitates me quicker or plunges me into the past deeper than an aroma. It's as though every other sense has gradually weakened while my olfactory sense has intensified. All I need is a sudden inhalation of men's cologne, and a man I buried almost seven years ago comes to life with a vivid and unsettling power. When I miss my father, it's not his clothes I reach for, it is his cologne. I search for my father through scent and that is where I always know I can find him.

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.


I really have to move on. I really have to live without him. Life will never be as it was. In the void, I create something that could not be born without the void--the loss, the absence, touches everything, brings it into being, brings it to life.

Mourning Stories: At Amarais

guest post by Beatriz Guimarães

No Amarais

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.

At Amarais(*)

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.

Nikolai Gogol and the Death of his Father

When the writer Gogol was sixteen, his father became ill and died two years later at the age of forty-three. On hearing the news, he wrote to his mother "True, at first I was terribly stricken by this news; however, I didn't let anyone know I was saddened. But when I was left alone, I gave myself up to all the power of mad desperation. I even wanted to make an attempt on my own life." This is exactly what Gogol did more than twenty years later, when he committed suicide through starvation at the age of forty-three. Shortly before he died, he said his father had died at the same age and "of the same disease."

— excerpt from The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression by Darian Leader

from "The Stone at the Bottom" by Manuel Ulacia

As my father’s breathing fails,
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
through us,
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

Last Moments

The last time I saw my father, I didn't know it would be the last time. We never know, do we? It comforts me that our last words were love. I love you, he said. I love you, I said. In love I was born, in love I hope to die.

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.


Tonight, the sky fumed pink and orange, a black cat crossed my path, and I had nothing to fear. The worst has happened.

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.

Haunted by What is Absent

I think it's interesting how one thought leads to another, one comment unearths an entire life that's been buried under so many years. One minute I'm in the present and then something reminds me of my grandmother ironing my clothes and then there is her house in my mind and the smell of coffee in my nose, which was always the scent that permeated her home. Then there she is at her sewing machine, there are her spools of thread. There she is in the kitchen; she was a wonderful cook. There's us at the dinner table. There's an entire life now vanished except for these fragments of memory that are left. And how do you create another life when that old life is gone? This life is never fully whole for me. It's made of those fragments, those shards, so it's unstable, haunted by what is absent, by all that is missing. But it's all I have. It's all any of us have. And some days, I'll take that life and do what I can with it. I'll make it enough.

The Snow is Light

When I was younger I loved the snow. I'd go sledding with neighborhood friends and build snowmen and catch snowflakes on my tongue and then run back in the house and drink warm hot chocolate. I liked when the snow first came down and there was only whiteness everywhere, the sky blended in with the earth, it always felt like the opposite of death to me. The snow is light. It is saturated with luminosity, it shimmers, it almost blinds you. It hurts to look at something that beautiful and pure but it too is frightening or at least it became frightening after my father died. That's when I saw death and terror in everything, even the things I used to love. I've never loved the snow quite like I did as a child. Back then it was new and wondrous, like most things when you're young. Now I see it more as a burden. The ice coats my window and I can't see through it. The sidewalks are dangerous. The cold is brutal.

Avital Ronell on Mourning

"Nearly every philosophy I have known has built a sanctuary, however remote and uncharted, for the experience of mourning. Sometimes a philosopher accidentally or furtively mentions the pull of loss, even when trying, like Nietzsche, to affirm all of life’s tragic edges and the necessity of mourning lost friendship or the destructive operations (and operas) of love.

"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"

A Fatherless Daughter: Ophelia

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.