by Anne Carson
New Directions, $35 (box)
by Dana Levin
Copper Canyon Press, $15 (paper)
by Gjertrud Schnackenberg
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $13 (paper)
Recently I heard an established male poet read from a book of elegies. The poems were beautiful, tense, melancholy, and minimalist, with the smallest margin of sentimentality. It was only days later that I realized that in none of them did the speaker bring anyone medication, a glass of water, or a meal. The poet’s concentration was on the elegiac tasks of praise and elevation—that is, on what the poet thinks he’s good for. Three recent books of poetry by women devote themselves to a different set of tasks.
Without the hope that mourning will be “completed,” these three books of the dead—Anne Carson’s Nox, Dana Levin’s Sky Burial, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s Heavenly Questions—assume that assenting to continuous mourning is culture’s only honest cure for grief. All three are, in some sense, strangely public works, committed to thinking of grief in terms beyond individual alienation. All three connect the personal disorder that accompanies mourning to the disorders in larger narratives. Each expresses a deep sense of responsibility, to say nothing of desire, to frame answers because they cannot be spoken with conviction. There is an urgency in the books that refuses the tedium of melancholy. These are documents of cultural care.
The subject of Anne Carson’s book is as obscure as its title, the Latin word for “night.” So, too, is the life of the poet’s brother, Michael, after his flight from the Canadian police (and, it seems, his family) years ago. It makes sense, then, that Nox literally has to be taken apart to be read. The box the book arrives in resembles an archival container that, when opened, reveals a spineless accordion of pages filled with words, images, reproductions of bits of letters, and scraps of family photographs. Though this surface suggests homemade chaos, it has the structure of an intricate map, for which a poem by Catullus serves as key. On the right-hand side of the pages is an investigation into the life of the “windswept spirit,” Michael; on the left-hand side, Carson parses the poem one word at a time. Etymological lists “define” each Latin word, but the definitions proceed from the literal (“Fraterno . . . of or belonging to a brother”) to the distantly figurative (“honourific term applied to allies”). For Carson, herself an exceptional translator and adaptor of classical literature, it is natural to compare her investigation of her brother to unfinished translation:
I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working on it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.
Nox has been wildly popular for a book of poetry—and a difficult and expensive one at that. People seem to want to take it home and live with it, and no wonder: it is a thrilling artifact, dense, heavy, loaded with silences and obscurities. Carson likens her brother to Lazarus and herself to a woman in a Giotto painting of same: “Notice the person with raised hands and no mouth (perhaps his sister) placed behind Lazarus to load this space with muteness.” For all that silence, however, there is a fair amount of self-aware musing about what this writing is for. Carson’s characterizations of her own project spiral around various aesthetic alternatives to certainty:
Elegy and history are akin. The word ‘history’ comes from an ancient Greek verb meaning to ask. One who asks about things—about their dimensions, weight, location, moods, names, holiness, smell—is an historian. But the asking is not idle. It is when you are asking about something that you realize you yourself have survived it, and so you must carry it, or fashion it into a thing that carries itself.
Mourning becomes a visceral experience of what Socrates has already told us about knowledge: “I know that I know nothing.”
In mourning, the senses don’t die. They become vividly refocused.
The more time I spent with Nox, the less interested I became in its convictions about the impossibility of ever knowing the truth. More compelling is Carson’s attempt to understand her brother’s life. I found myself paying a kind of mental lip service to the etymologies on the left-hand pages but rushing forward into the narrative of investigation on the right, like someone allowing herself to enjoy Law and Order for the first time. There is a harsh uncertainty to enjoy in passages such as this:
I have a photograph of him (taken in the bush behind Bald Rock) about ten years old standing on the ground beneath a tree house. Above him in the tree house you can see three older boys gazing down. They have raised the ladder. He is giving the camera a sideways invisible look. Years later, when he began to deal drugs, I got the old sinking feeling—not for the criminality of it, not for the danger, but that look. No one knew him. He was the one who was old.
Carson daringly resists the idea that one cannot think one’s way into another’s muteness and pursues an intimacy occasioned both by necessity and desperation. In her wise and clinical speculations, she also tests one’s certainty about the impossibility of knowing. And, indeed, how much more terrifying and daring it is for the artist to find herself in the space of knowing something awful than to continue to tell us how not to.
I find it striking, as the book goes on, that Carson becomes as fascinated by the (failed) figures of care in Michael’s life—those burdened with knowing him: herself, her mother, his wife—as with Michael himself. In a particularly wonderful moment, she records the widow’s words at the funeral, “And now some food for thought. / Yesterday you cannot change. / Today you might alter. / Tomorrow does not give any promise.” Is it an accident that this sounds like a more direct version of Carson’s own austerity? Stunning in the eloquence of its ambivalence, it strikes me as the non-literary and, for lack of a better word, non-academic distillation of the book’s wisdom.
• • •
Dana Levin’s Sky Burial, meanwhile, is painfully written, yearning more for a cure for grief than for comprehension. “I thought of my father and mother and sister being dead,” she writes in the opening poem. “I was so sick / of feeling anything about it.”
Yes, these events feel utterly incomprehensible, and Levin’s book has the mood of an extended nightmare. She leaves biographical clarity behind, and her tone becomes lofty but broken, with an eerie sense of pleasure in her descriptions of burial rites: “That one must put color / to the lips of the dead— // file them in the ground under a name— // Smash the skull. / For the eaters, who will bear the used body away.” In mourning, the senses don’t die. They become vividly refocused.
Through what she calls “grief aesthetic,” Levin builds a mental practice that will give shape to catastrophe. To mourn is, she says, a “Game on the banks of your / mental styx.” It must be undergone, but can’t be controlled: “Only by lying in one spot could one keep the dead from becoming vapor // rappelling / into her navel with a rope— // Even though there were spots you didn’t like to visit: her hands, her breath, her thighs—” Levin tends to leave a sense of where she’s physically situated until the end of the poem, foregrounding the disparate materials she’s using to make sense of things. The formal shape of this practice is the orchestrated disorder of collage, but with none of Carson’s improvisation or play. These poems are both hermetic and at times clear. Each has a purpose.
In Levin’s hands the fragment becomes a tool of regeneration and self-understanding. It’s as if the very idea of the sentence has to be rethought from the beginning. As in “White Tara”:
Build it from rot.
From the moldered soil
of the neglected shit-strewn yard—
for the neighbor’s cats, they love the smell: alive alive—
Out of elm sticks
from the weedy trees, crush and glitter
of yellowed leaves, you must
jamb and sill, a frame
through which she can come
and be the god on the bedroom wall, White
Seven eyes on the suffering world, still
in the clothes she was wearing when she
smacked face-first to the floor—
The indentations make each thought feel eruptive, and the occasionally down-to-earth diction suddenly makes what’s lofty feel immediate. There is a sense that something’s being built, not destroyed, by all this mourning.
• • •
That structure, the edifice that arises from mourning, is unveiled in Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s Heavenly Questions. A series of extended meditations in decasyllabic meter about the death of the poet’s husband, the philosopher Robert Nozick, the most vivid of these poems occur near the patient’s bedside, in the haunting, haunted space and time before death, where and when the mourner and the caregiver are one. The first line announces this “visit to the shores of lullabies,” and we are reminded throughout, “All is well now, hush now, close your eyes.”
Schnackenberg is tired, a little drugged, stuck in a hospital, and restoring language to one of its ancient purposes: medication.
The poet directs the lullaby outward, to the patient and to the reader, but its repetition also feels like an act of self-care. Like Carson and Levin, Schnackenberg looks to cultural paradigms for direction; the book’s title comes from an ancient Chinese text devoted to unanswerable questions. But Heavenly Questions tenders a faith in language that Carson and Levin find difficult. It’s not only that Schnackenberg writes metrical verse, it’s that she is not interested in exposing its inadequacy. Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously said of the ballad that the singer repeats a line when there is nothing else to say. Schnackenberg’s lulling refrains also seem to acknowledge the limitations of the speaker’s power while enabling language to enact its own ritualized form of care. This, in turn, fosters the poetic ease with which deathbed scenes take on an epic glow:
But if it did no good, then how could I
Have watched as toxins dripped how many times
Into his bluest veins from hanging tubes
With hypodermic fangs, and how could he
Have offered up his veins without a word,
Except to reassure me it’s all right
And never lose his confidence and wait
Throughout how many closed eternities,
Like Theseus bound to a chair with snakes.
Some readers might quail at so self-conscious a display of cultural capital: Is it unseemly to compare your dying husband to Theseus? Yet Schnackenberg repeats most of her references so often that the danger is more of boredom. She seems to need the stories as comfort, but even her vast swaths of description ultimately decay into cosmology: “Weightless prisms spill / Across the ceiling, scattered from my ring, / And quiver: multiplying, self-disclosed, / The chains of planets flow, and disappear.” At times Schnackenberg chooses rhythm over precision, falling into a kind of sophistry. But it’s interesting to see why. She’s tired, a little drugged, stuck in a hospital, and restoring beautiful language to one of its ancient purposes: medication.
What is the value of an act of care, the entire book seems to ask, when such acts are useless at extending life? However frustrated Schnackenberg might be by her powerlessness, she doesn’t think that the availability of an answer, rather than a silence or a further question, does a disservice to the inquiry. She can’t stop formulating definite answers even while she knows that none is, in fact, definite. We might not like the answers, or understand them, but the Schnackenberg mind keeps putting them out there: “It never ends, this dire need to know.” What also never ends is the knowing itself, the knowledge we’ve stored in order to enfold ourselves in it. For anyone who’s been at the terminal bedside, constantly solving problems for the cancer patient, this is as, if not more, credible a stay against confusion as Carson’s refusal to rest on an answer.
The final poem of Heavenly Questions, “Bedtime Mahabharata,” ends in an incantatory, re-imagined retelling of the end of the Sanskrit epic. Once again, the poet, with her army of mythic gods, seems to have alighted on an answer: “All that could be done has now been done. / I am the same to all, Lord Krishna said. / To all beings, my love is ever one.” But when the reader turns the page, the poet has yet another answer:
And here—mid-tale, mid-war, mid-labyrinth,
Mid-birth and -death, mid–once upon a time,
And midway through the names of all who died
In wars we can’t say where, we can’t say when,
Their stories broken off, the fragments fused
Annihilation gusting nearer; here—
Here the god of writers broke his pen.
Tellingly, Schnackenberg chooses to end her poem on an answer that is also an action. The answer-making—here it is answer-making, not answer-seeking—stops not when you’ve found the satisfactory solution but when you’ve brought your individual imagination of the dead into orbit with the imagination of the many dead—“the babied dead,” in Levin’s book, or all the lost soldiers Catullus mentions in the poem that begins Nox.
Schnackenberg’s writing is not always the best. Carson has a more restrained eloquence and a passionate variety that keeps you turning the pages. Sky Burial contains more pure fire than Nox and Heavenly Questions put together, as well as a strikingly original diction: Wikipedia and whatbird.com sit next to words such as “augur” and “ichor.” But what Schnackenberg does is articulate the processes of a mind that cannot stop finding and discarding intellectual solutions for the unsolvable loss of the beloved. It seems quite a dare to keep providing answers anyway. It also feels intellectually honest, and even sincere, if sincerity means not answering the question merely by saying that it’s unanswerable.