David Lang - "Death Speaks" and "Depart"

Death Speaks draws its initial inspiration from the work of Schubert -- specifically the song "Death and the Maiden." 
As Lang describes it, "I went alphabetically in the German through every single Schubert song text (thank you, internet!) and compiled every instance of when the dead sent a message to the living. All told, I used excerpts from 32 songs, translating them very roughly and trimming them."

As a companion to the five-part "death speaks," Lang also composed "depart," the second piece on the CD. Featuring four solo vocalists with Maya Beiser on multi-tracked cellos, the music offers a life-affirming meditative ambience intended to help family members deal with the death of a loved one. The piece currently plays as part of a permanent installation at a hospital morgue just outside of Paris. For more about the making of "depart," listen to this fascinating Radiolab podcast, with excerpts from an interview with David Lang.
Click hear to purchase Death Speaks
Stream Death Speaks on Spotify 

Sally Mann - Body Farm (2000)

Trigger Warning: dead bodies

Mann has a gift for provoking strong reactions ("I like pushing buttons") and her pictures of rotting corpses certainly do that. She took them at the University of Tennessee's anthropological facility at Knoxville, aka the "body farm", where human decomposition is studied scientifically. The bodies are mostly left in an outdoor setting and lie there for months or even years. In Steven Cantor's 2006television documentary about Mann, she is observed happily wandering from cadaver to cadaver, prodding this body part and stroking that one, unfazed by the maggots and reek of decay.
"Death makes us sad, but it can also make us feel more alive," she says. "I couldn't wait to get there. The smell didn't bother me. And you should see the colours – they're really beautiful. As Wallace Stevens says, death is the mother of beauty."

"There's a new prudery around death. We've moved it into hospital, behind screens, and no longer wear black markers to acknowledge its presence. It's become unmentionable."

There are various sources for Mann's preoccupation with mortality. The shooting of an escaped prisoner in the grounds of her farm in Lexington. The death of her greyhound, Eva, whose bones – retrieved from the cage in which Mann had buried her – she later photographed ("That was when I learned how efficient death is. After 14 months, the skeleton had been picked completely clean"). Or, years before, the death of her father, for which she was present and which set her wondering, "Where did all of that him-ness go?"
The Guardian - Sally Mann: The Naked and the Dead 
images via Sally Mann's website

Sufjan Stevens on Coping With Grief Through Music

At The Guardian, Dave Eggers writes about Sufjan Stevens's new album, Carrie & Lowell, which deals with the death of Stevens's mother. Stevens talks about creating music as a way to cope with his grief:
“I was recording songs as a means of grieving, making sense of it,” he says. “But the writing and recording wasn't the salve I expected. I fell deeper and deeper into doubt and misery. It was a year of real darkness. In the past my work had a real reciprocity of resources – I would put something in and get something from it. But not this time.” That he was able to make an album of such coherence and delicacy is a significant feat, given the deeply complicated relationship he had with Carrie.
Carrie and Lowell divorced in 1984, but stayed in touch through the years. When Carrie died, Stevens felt emotionally and creatively all over the map. He collaborated on a hip-hop album with Serengeti. He worked on a ballet. He was trying to distract himself, to stay busy. “I was trying to manipulate my mood. I was working the opposite of my own true interior envelope. I wasn't able to admit how deeply I was affected by her death.”
Eventually, though, he began writing songs, but had no intention of making an album dedicated to Carrie and Lowell – to the mother who left and the stepdad who stayed. In fact, after recording 30 demos, Stevens had no clue what he had. “It was a shambles. I had no objectivity.” Even after nine albums, he wasn't any better at knowing how to shape this collection into an album. “Every time I start something, I feel ignorant. It’s starting over every time.” Though he usually produces his own records, this time he turned to Thomas Bartlett, a musician-producer friend who was in a similar existential place; he had recently lost a brother to cancer.
“Thomas took all these sketches and made sense of it all. He called me out on my bullshit. He said: ‘These are your songs. This is your record.’ He was ruthless.”
The result is a tight 11-song cycle, 42 minutes that are at once brutal and beautiful, obsessed with grief and death but absolutely cathartic. For Stevens, the chaos of it all had been shaped into something with boundaries and something like clarity. “At the end I could speak for it,” he says, “for the sadness. It was dignified.”
Read the full article
Listen to album stream of Carrie & Lowell 

Mary Jo Bang - You Were You Are Elegy

Fragile like a child is fragile.
Destined not to be forever.
Destined to become other
To mother. Here I am
Sitting on a chair, thinking
About you. Thinking
About how it was
To talk to you.
How sometimes it was wonderful
And sometimes it was awful.
How drugs when drugs were
Undid the good almost entirely
But not entirely
Because good could always be seen
Glimmering like lame glimmers
In the window of a shop
Called Beautiful
Things Never Last Forever.
I loved you. I love you. You were.
And you are. Life is experience.
It's all so simple. Experience is
The chair we sit on.
The sitting. The thinking
Of you where you are a blank
To be filled
In by missing. I loved you.
I love you like I love
All beautiful things.
True beauty is truly seldom.
You were. You are
In May. May now is looking onto
The June that is coming up.
This is how I measure
The year. Everything Was My Fault
Has been the theme of the song
I've been singing,
Even when you've told me to quiet.
I haven't been quiet.
I've been crying. I think you
Have forgiven me. You keep
Putting your hand on my shoulder
When I'm crying.
Thank you for that. And
For the ineffable sense
Of continuance. You were. You are
The brightest thing in the shop window
And the most beautiful seldom I ever saw.

with thanks to The Poetry Foundation

Sissy Spacek on Losing Her Brother

In the new Netflix original series, Bloodline, Sissy Spacek plays the matriarch of the Rayburn family, owners of a well-regarded hotel in the Florida Keys and prominent members of the local community. The beauty of the location belies the darkness hiding under the family's perfect façade. The show is about grief and the ways in which loss can haunt our lives. At The Guardian, Spacek discusses the show and describes how the death of her brother affected her life:
“I think they've just put things away and moved on,” Spacek says, of the past traumas that lie at the heart of Bloodline, “rather than address them and have them be alive in their lives.” It’s a scenario that has parallels with her own family background. Her older brother Robbie died from leukaemia when she was 17. “For me, the grief was almost like rocket fuel,” Spacek wrote in My Extraordinary Ordinary Life, her 2012 autobiography. Having grown up a tomboy in the small Texas town of Quitman, she left for New York to hang out with her cousin, the actor Rip Torn, became a singer and then an actor. How did her brother’s death influence her acting? 
“I think it made me brave,” she says. “Once you experience something like that, you've experienced the ultimate tragedy. And if you can continue, nothing else frightens you. That’s what I meant about it being rocket fuel – I was fearless in a way. Maybe it gave more depth to my work because I had already experienced something profound and life-changing. It was a devastating blow but it became a real positive. I grew so much and it was definitely because of my mother. She wanted all of us to be better through what we had experienced – and not be devastated by it. Something like that can propel you or it can be a black hole that sucks all the life and air out of the room. And I think the Rayburns, and particularly Sally, don’t have the tools to understand that.”
Read the full interview 

Jane Hirshfield on Grief and Poetry

At NPR, Jane Hirshfield gives an interview about poetry and discusses a poem she wrote about grief. The poem is "Two Linen Handkerchiefs:"
How can you have been dead twelve years
and these still
Hirshfield discusses why she wrote the poem and how poetry about grief can be comforting to some readers.
The poem is broken off in exactly the way a life is broken off, in exactly the way grief breaks off, takes us beyond any possible capacity for words to speak. And yet it also, short as it is, holds all of our bewilderment in the face of death. How is it that these inanimate handkerchiefs — which did belong to my father and are still in a drawer of mine, and which I did accidentally come across — how can they still be so pristinely ironed and clean and existent when the person who chose them and used them and wore them is gone? ...
I think compassion, in a way, is one of the most important things poems do for me, and I trust do for other people. They allow us to feel how shared our fates are. If a person reads this poem when they're inside their own most immediate loss, they immediately — I hope — feel themselves accompanied. Someone else has been here. Someone else has felt what I felt. And, you know, we know this in our minds, but that's very different from being accompanied by the words of a poem, which are not ideas but are experiences.
Listen to the full interview 

"Her Absence is Like the Sky:" On C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed

Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis was no stranger to loss. At the age of nine, he lost his mother to cancer. After fighting in the trenches of WWI, he kept a promise to a fallen comrade to take care of the dead man’s mother, but soon the relationship with the woman grew into a romance. Lewis experienced grief, once again, when she died. But it was the death of Joy Davidman, a woman with which he struck up a correspondence in his later years and eventually married, that proved to be the loss he almost didn't survive. When Joy died of cancer in 1960, Lewis poured out his emotions in the short, compact A Grief Observed. In the text, Lewis grapples with questions of faith, but even a secular reader can relate to what he writes about grief, mourning, and the pain of losing a loved one.

Several times, Lewis refers to the isolation of grief. He writes that "An odd byproduct of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate if they do, and if they don’t." The pain of losing Joy alienates him from a world that continues as though nothing has happened, a world that simply does not know what to say to a grieving man. Lewis elaborates on his separation from other people by observing that “There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting.” Lewis has no desire to engage with the outside world; his grief is all-consuming. As Lewis explains so eloquently about Joy’s death, “The act of living is different all through. Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.” How do we go on living when a loss is so devastating as to alter every aspect of our lives? How do we live with such absence? Lewis offers no answers, no instruction manual on how to deal with loss, all he can do is write and, in the act of putting his grief on the page, lessen the fear, the sorrow, and the isolation.

However, an ongoing struggle for Lewis throughout the text is the very act of writing itself. He must constantly justify why he is writing about grief at all. He states that “By writing it all down (all?-no: one thought in a hundred) I believe I get a little outside it. That’s how I defend it to H.” (In the book, Joy is referred to as “H.”) Lewis was a writer. Why, then, did he feel the need to defend engaging in an activity that was both his profession and passion? Above all, Lewis fears that A Grief Observed focuses more on himself than it does on Joy, that his personal anguish overshadows the suffering she endured when she was alive and his memories of her. He writes that “For the first time I have looked back and read these notes. They appal me. From the way I've been talking anyone would think that H.’s death mattered chiefly for its effect on myself. Her point of view seems to have dropped out of sight.” He goes on to remind himself that “I must think more about H. and less about myself. Yes, that sounds very well. But there’s a snag. I am thinking about her nearly always.” Herein lies the contradiction of grief--it’s about the dead but it’s also about ourselves, about what the death of another person has done to us. Lewis reproves himself for not writing more about Joy but her very death, her omnipresent absence, is always there.  He is always writing about her even if she is not explicitly mentioned. She haunts the text because she is the source, the root, of the grief. She is in every word he writes.

Another concern of Lewis's is how he reconstructs Joy in his mind, how death alters our memory of a departed loved one. He worries that his grief will “have substituted for the real woman a mere doll to be blubbered over.” His fear of losing an authentic idea of Joy echoes his earlier anxiety about excising Joy from the text. Writing is a form of preservation. If he doesn't write about her, then how can he properly remember her? Other forms of preservation are no good either, as Lewis writes that “I have no photograph of her that’s any good. I cannot even see her face distinctly in my imagination.” So early into his loss and he is already losing Joy again, losing the specificity, the corporeality of this woman he loved. What does remain is her voice. Lewis records that “her voice is still vivid. The remembered voice--that can turn me at any moment to a whimpering child.”

Lewis struggles with the absence he mentioned earlier, the absence that is everywhere, and how can he fill it? How can he reconstruct Joy when she is no longer physically present? Don’t all people confront the same challenge after a loss? The dead are gone, they leave behind a literal hole in our lives. The hole is the space their bodies once filled. We have no skin to touch, no arms to grasp, no hands to hold. The sensuous experience of a person is lost forever and no words or photographs can ever do justice to the tactile reality of another human being. The substitutions are simply not good enough. As Lewis puts it, “I want H., not something that is like her.” The real thing is all he wants and it’s the one thing he cannot have.

At times, Lewis’s writing is unbearably raw and full of an intense aching. He writes, “You tell me, ‘she goes on.’ But my heart and body are crying out, come back, come back.” Lewis is in the depths of anguish and bares his soul. He also questions the point of it all, “What does it matter how this grief of mine evolves or what I do with it? What does it matter how I remember her or whether I remember her at all? None of these alternatives will either ease or aggravate her past anguish.” Grief itself seems pointless to Lewis. Nothing in the present moment can alter the tragedy of the past. But what Lewis wrote does matter because he charted the development of his own grief and, in so doing, showed the unpredictability and fluidity of grief, how grieving comes in different forms and changes by the day, even by the hour. Just when he thinks he knows grief, or understands it, or thinks he’s better and free from it, a memory comes and he is, once again, leveled.

At one point, Lewis compares Joy’s death to the amputation of a leg that changes the body forever but does not threaten its survival. He writes that “At present I am learning to get about on crutches, Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.” However, later, he is forced to admit the inadequacy of the amputation metaphor, that it was too simplistic for a condition that never truly ends. He amends his earlier statement by writing that “I was wrong to say the stump was recovering from the pain of amputation. I was deceived because it has so many ways to hurt me that I discover them only one by one.” Lewis hobbled along on his “wooden leg” for only a short period of time. Three years after the death of Joy Davidman, C.S. Lewis died at the age of 64.

Peter Watkins - The Unforgetting (2011-2014)


There’s this memory I have where we’re driving down a long straight road. The windscreen wipers are going at continuous, and vision is dull and mostly grey. My mother is seated front left, in the passenger side, and my father is driving, wearing a merino jumper with interconnecting diamond shapes; the kind golfers wear. I recall leaning forward and asking a question with an equal measure of naivety and boldness—the kind of question that seems to arise from some existential place that children of a certain age develop—I am curious which of my parents will die first, and I go about asking them their ages. My father, at the wheel, turns his head slightly, and explains that he’s eighteen years older than my mother. I pause briefly, before declaring that in this case my father will die first, followed by my mother, who will die many years later. I forget what my mother was wearing.
Some months later my mother would end up walking into the North Sea, her final act in a series of events that came to sum up her final few months of life. Somehow torn between her native Germany and Wales, where I grew up, her apparent suicide was located in equidistance from both these places, the symbolic nature of which is still the stuff of mystery. The memories of this time, and what is built around it, creates a foundational narrative of sorts that I can accept to some degree as authentic—I was there, after all; that was me sitting in the car, and later me standing to have my photograph taken right where my mother had been buried, with the newly dug soil at my feet.
These memories are coloured by recollection, by the inadequacy of language, and, through language, they bare all the rhythm and structure of narrative fiction—my recollections are transfigured by narrative, but also brought to life by them, and somewhere in the conscious act retelling, a certain degree of dilution seems to occur. The purity of memory is transformed in this exchange, and the seemingly authentic becomes nothing more than an insufficient narrative, an incomplete patchwork of facts, assumptions, and storytelling.
The Unforgetting is the culmination of several year’s work that examines my German family history; the trauma surrounding the loss of my mother as a child, as well as the associated notions of time, memory and history, all bound up in the objects, places, photographs, and narrative structures circulated within the family. This is an exploration of a personal history that cannot be told with any certainty, but is told anyway.
Artist's Statement
with thanks to Peter Watkins and The Guardian 


Did I really know him? Won't he always be unknowable? Doesn't death make everyone unknowable, at last?

Everything melts to nostalgia.

How do I unbleed you?

Instead of crying, I write.

I care only about fragments. I live sentence by sentence.

I want to convey the mutilation of grief.

I write what I cannot speak to another person. Certain emotions are too raw, too unfathomable, to be said aloud in conversation.

Nostalgia is like exile. You are exiled from the past, you can never go back to it, but you can't stop thinking about it, writing about it.

People disappear and we have no word for it. We will never understand.

How to write what is incomprehensible? Maybe you don't write it. You write around it. You write about light and the moon and autumn. You write gestures, memories, descriptions of a material world forever on the verge of disappearing.

I sleep with books in my bed.

The pain lives in the words.

I want a tattoo of my father's name. I want to write him on my body.

I listen to music at night to keep from thinking about him.

I want to put his picture in a locket. I want him near me.

Something is in me. I can't get it out. Is it dead or alive? Why has it chosen me? My body cannot be cleansed of it.

Unspeakable absence

We didn't bury him, not really. We didn't let go. No, I didn't let go.

We are temporary substance.

I will grieve myself to death

Tear-stained hair

An unrequited aching for the dead

Every time I write, I fail. Forgive me.

I am tearing these words out of myself.

Juliette Binoche in Antigone

I recently wrote about the new stage production of Antigone, directed by Ivo van Hove and starring Juliette Binoche. The Guardian has just published a review of the play and provided captivating images of Binoche in action.

Gwyneth Lewis - Birder

(i.m. my aunt Megan 1924-2009)

Midwinter, season for seeing through
Time and space. Before the War,
You were ‘sparrow’. Now I hear
Geese in your breathing, oboe sighs.
Overhead they’re leaving too. Each bird’s
A letter, making sense
For a moment, then not. Cirrus of snow
Lays over the woods. Sluggish
With ice, the creek’s pulse slows.

Morning performance on the stage
Under the feeder. Enter wild turkeys,
A corps de ballet in copper tutus.
Solo of startle – entrechat, entrechat,
Pas de bourées – then the tom
Leads off his harem, one by one,
No curtsey, no curtain call. Then gone.

Fashion show: a black-eyed junco
Models its species – train,
Down jacket (in white and slate),
Then profile. When I die
I want to hear birds ricochet
Outside my window, feel the strobe
Of small flocks feeding. I’d like
To deserve this litany:
Woodpecker, waxwing, chickadee.

It’s no small thing to have lived your life
In cardinals’ and tree-creepers’ eyes.
They’ll feel you first as a rendezvous missed,
Then hunger. Your body’s the birds
Waiting as they rise and scatter
To a final slam of the kitchen door.

with thanks to The Guardian