There are two projects I am working on “in studio” right now. The Universe seems to keep giving me what I need creatively to lift those projects right off the ground.
A poem from one of the projects was accepted for a reading at the Poetry Scope event organized by the NC Museum of Natural Sciences on August 8 at 7 p.m. It was a clear and resounding “yes” to a question I had asked about the relevance of the project. I have held on to this project for so long believing it wasn’t ready because it wasn’t “good enough.” Although this was yet another excuse to keep hiding behind the protective cloak of procrastination, I am so glad I waited. Perhaps this project could not have been taken on properly by my London publisher, and another publisher is interested in seeing the manuscript. Small fortunes, big joy.
The second project got its Universe talk-back from an article I read about the work of Rebecca Goss, whose 2nd collection of poems, Her Birth, is shortlisted for the Forward prize. For this second collection, Rebecca is writing about the loss of a child. The Guardian article where I read about her work made me start thinking heavily about elegies. A few careful searches led me to lots of information about women and elegy, U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey and elegy (listen to her read it here), Anne Carson’s booklength elegy, Nox, William Blake’s “Lucy” poems … and the fact that much of the work in my PHANTOM LIMBS project is elegiac.
In traditional form, the elegy is written about someone who is dead. It is not the same as a eulogy, but it is typically transitioned into the three stages of grief: lament, exalt, and consolation. Eighteenth century elegies were iambic pentameter quatrains that followed an ABAB rhyme scheme. Elegies that contemporary poets generate often do not follow these rules. One of my favorites is Mary Jo Bang’s “You Were You Are Elegy” about her son, who died in 2004 of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.
You Were You Are Elegy
BY MARY JO BANG
- “This is perhaps why Mary Jo Bang largely succeeds in her new book of elegies for her son, called, simply enough, “Elegy.” Bang’s previous four collections are polished and frequently interesting, but they also contain more than their share of overwrought and overthought poetry about poetry….That can’t be said of “Elegy.” This is a tightly focused, completely forthright collection written almost entirely in the bleakest key imaginable. The poems aren’t all great, some of them aren’t even good, but collectively they are overwhelming — which is both a compliment to Bang’s talent and to the toughness of mind that allowed her to attempt this difficult project in the first place.
I’m not sure how I feel about Orr pretty much casting much of Bang’s work as “overthought,” but I am very encouraged about what a defining moment an elegy can be. This book made Orr crown Bang with “talent,” which means everything and nothing to me. His is not ever the final word for a fellow writer’s work, but there are parts of me that sit up straight and pay attention to the very idea that this book — “Elegy” — and its predominant literary form — the elegy — moved him … and moves me.
PHANTOM LIMBS is a project that has taken me more than a decade of courage to take on for exploration. In previous attempts, the subjects were still too painful, and I was just too close to it. Now, though, I have enough emotional distance to perform some creative closeness. Right now, what I am doing to keep my emotional memory sharp is to explore the story. As best as I can remember, I am going in on the facts in order to get to the truths. When I take a pen and paper in my hands, there are so many details that come, things I was sure I had forgotten: in the parts of the story where there is not death, there is the smell of loss, the sting of sterile lights glaring down at me as I step into the spotlight as my former self and perform the painful acts again and again for a reading audience. I expect some beautiful overthinking and do not care if David Orr doesn’t find it moving.
After great pain a formal feeling comes–
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
And yesterday–or centuries before?
The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.
This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.
But all the frozen people in my PHANTOM LIMBS terrain are not recollecting snow. Two of them are dead. Two of them are strong shadows that follow their former frozen-people selves.
Mary Jo Bang suggests that the elegy is written as a means of escaping pain, of making sense of the suffering that the living contend with after a death has happened around them. She writes for the PBS Online Newshour:
“… I was distracting myself by doing what I do — write poems and found it as a way of escaping this state of exquisite suffering.
The role of elegy is
To put a death mask on tragedy,
A drape on the mirror.
To bow to the cultural
Debate over the anesthetization of sorrow,
Of loss, of the unbearable
Afterimage of the once material.
To look for an imagined
Consolidation of grief
So we can all be finished
Once and for all and genuinely shut up
The cabinet of genuine particulars.”
I find so far that I am doing just the opposite of what Mary Jo Bang suggests about elegy; Instead of escaping pain, I am diving into elegy as a way back into pain after numbness.
I’m expecting great things of the elegy, the three-stage poem that allows the survivor to grieve, praise and be okay. As I walk through the elegy’s many doors, I’m expecting to get stuck in stages, to subject myself to the powerful act of being frozen.
I’m halfway expecting to recognize myself as I once was, awkward around the heart and unknowing. Mary Jo Bang has even given me instructions for knowing who I have to be to write this book: COME ON STAGE AND BE YOURSELF.
“…there’s the endless refrain
One hears replayed repeatedly
Through the just ajar door:
Some terrible mistake has been made.
What is elegy but the attempt
To re-breathe life
Into what the gone one once was
Before he grew to enormity.
Come on stage and be yourself,
The elegist says to the dead. Show them
Now -after the fact -
What you were meant to be:
The performer of a live song.
A shoe. Now bow.
What is left but this:
The compulsion to tell.”