Kevin Young, Ed. Bloomsbury: New York, NY, 2010. 311 pages. $24.00.
Elias Canetti once argued that “without a new attitude toward death nothing worthwhile can be said regarding life.” Standing at nearly three-hundred pages, Kevin Young’s anthology attempts to answer Canetti’s call. While it is tempting to read such a large anthology non-linearly, or to nitpick over the editor’s selections before reading (where is Akhmatova?), it is most advisable to read this book, though large and challenging, poem by poem, line by line. Ranging from surreal meditations to intimate domestic scenes, plain talk to reticent or not so reticent formalism, I consistently applauded Young’s ability to join together poems that offer such disparate stances toward grief.
The book is divided into six sections that Young sees as hallmarks of the grieving process: Reckoning, Regret, Remembrance, Ritual, Recovery, and Redemption. This formal progression gives the book a solid narrative arc—and each section functions like a separate multi-sectioned poem. As the poets deal with the early emotions of reckoning and regret, the reading is very difficult—often, the poems give in and confess that language is incapable of expressing such difficult emotions. As this happens, we relate all too well to those moments of defeat, but Young helps us through; he gives us John Berryman admitting that “Nouns verbs do not exist for what I feel,” but in the very next poem, Derek Walcott counters that “but out of what is lost grows something stronger // that has the rational radiance of stone.” Alternating between poems that admit defeat and poems that alchemically transcend the mundane via metaphor, the reading mirrors the grieving process. As Young suggests: it is “in grief that we need some reminder of our humanity—and, sometimes, someone to say it for us.”
This alternating between aphasia and articulation happens throughout the early sections as poets doubt their abilities. Frank Bidart claims that “Woe is blunted not erased / by like.” Joel Brouwer, remembering a lost love’s cancerous lesions writes, “The spots were like metaphors. They told us something / by showing us something else. And so I believed they were metaphors. // They were not.” Over and over again, poets strike out against their art form to reveal its insufficiency, but in doing so they find words where previously there was silence.
As the book moves through the middle and later stages, we begin to see poems that help the aggrieved transcend those early formal feelings. First, Young gives us poems that seek to define their task: C.K. Williams asks, “shouldn’t grief have a form of its own?” William Matthews writes that elegy is “the flesh made word.” Then come poems filled with speakers who are learning from grief: Terrence Hayes admits that at first “I did not know the detours of grief. / I did not know the detours from grief.” Most rewarding, the last one-hundred pages are filled with poems that have survived grief, that celebrate that which is most human. As Ashbery has it:
One of us stays behind.
One of advances on the bridge
as on a carpet. Life—it’s marvelous—
follows and falls behind.
Perhaps the best gift of this anthology is that it places well-loved and powerful poems in new contexts. After many consecutive unfamiliar poems, a poem like Tate’s “The Lost Pilot,” Millay’s “Dirge Without Music,” or Komunyakaa’s “Facing It” rises up and tears our heads off the way it did when we first read it. Bringing together poets at many points of their careers, Young allows fresh, lesser-known voices to also seem familiar.
Near the end of the collection, Young moves away from direct elegy and begins selecting poems that, in Adam Zagajeweski’s words, “Try to praise the mutilated world.” It becomes clear that the very process of grieving eventually leads to an acceptance of what has been lost—and gained. Right before the collection ends, Kenneth Koch beseeches his own breath, demonstrating this new-found attitude: “I want to understand certain things and tell them to others. / To do it, I have to get them right, so they are hard to resist. / Stay with me until I can do this.” It is such a simple request: to be able to understand and explain those things that matter while we have the chance. In the end, Young’s anthology leaves the reader with the impression that grief can be understood, that the ineffable can be explained. It is in the reader’s hands to realize, like Ruth Stone does, that “All things come to an end. / No. They go on forever.”