I’ve been trying for a few years now to understand elegy. This is not to speak of not knowing what the definition of elegy is or not knowing where to find astonishing instances of elegiac writing. Rather, what’s the appeal of an elegy? What has come to be the primary meaning of elegy in the wake of the Renaissance, a poem written as an act of both protest and consolation in the wake of a death, is strangely enough not the simplest. For all that there are famous instances of elegies for public figures, figures everyone, in some sense knew, what is so appealing about witnessing elegies for the dead who are as unknown to us as is the writer? In what way can we say we “enjoy” or “appreciate” elegy? What exactly does it do for us? Deborah Digges poem “Haying” in the newest Kenyon Review (Fall 2007–available soon if not already) is a perfect place to start.
I had the good fortune to hear Deborah Digges read a few years ago at Kenyon College from her latest collection Trapeze, which is as insistently elegant as it is elegiac. Her poetry has always held an edge sharper and fiercer than the great mass of poetry that tries to place a lyric speaker in a world of rural work and pleasure, erotic love, and heartfelt loss. You feel in Digges’ poems not simply the lush accuracy of physical detail but it is as if the very land and its vegetation cut into you as you read one of her poems:
Scythe to root cut, rolled backwards into time,
the hut-round ricks lashed down foursquare with linen
like bonneted and faceless women.
In the poem we are the crops cut down and the harvested remainder bound and stored. And this is where the force of elegy, in Digges’ work, begins to make more sense. It is not merely that we are asked to witness the grief of someone who mourns or to celebrate the life of someone who dies. As readers we witness and are asked to receive in our own bodies the lived experience of an electrical storm of potent feeling. We become conductors, like lightning rods, or maybe the earth itself, grounding lightning by absorbing its deadly flare and charge. What’s important is not naming, cataloging or narrating specific emotional states; they are far often too familiar. Rather, we feel with the poet the force of affect raging through the body that stubbornly and culpably lives on despite the loss of a beloved.
The writer of elegy may mourn and rage, but she is also the one who would have poured life into the body of someone dying to keep him alive, if she could. Who doesn’t feel the power of someone who says, “I’d try death on to find you, gown made of grasses.” The poem judges that gesture to be “a mortal lie” as the speaker lies down on a grave “as close as I can get to you here on a bed of straw.” The culpability comes from the irrational but unmistakable feeling that at times we shouldn’t survive our losses, though we do.
We’re drawn to elegy for just these moments because we feel culpable too: for not loving enough, not living enough, not feeling enough. We stubbornly and culpable want to live as well, and the charge of that will to live in the face of loss and death is all-encompassing. It’s not merely that we can empathize (though we most probably can) or because the lost beloved of another’s poem is familiar to us (though perhaps the poems makes it so). More conventionally, we may think reading elegy is like seeking condolence cards in a stationery store. Great elegies are different. Trapped between mute howling and the rut of convention, elegies summon the wild force of life itself: the life that lives fiercely on in the wake of another’s loss. Reading such elegy is more like chasing tornadoes to see how close you can get. It’s dangerous business, and few poems are as dangerous as those of Deborah Digges.