Toronto, ON: Coach House Books, 2014. 104 pages, $17.95.
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Elegy is, among other things, a form of gift-giving: the mourner bestows praise on the departed through the humble offering of a poem. But unlike most gifts, an elegy permits no possibility of reciprocation; the beneficiary is quite literally unreachable. This is what makes the elegiac mode so affecting and characteristically generous—it’s a tribute that asks nothing in return.
Not all elegies, however, are necessarily selfless. Some are self-addressed. Sina Queyras’s M x T (Coach House Books, 2014) levels with the reader: “There will be no one to write an elegy for me and so I am writing my own now, I want you to keep up with me. I want you to feel the way the wind holds a bird.” Written in response to a series of deaths in the poet’s immediate family, M x T is a work of deep despair. Overwhelmed with mourning (“Water, water everywhere, my dead ones…”), Queyras confronts her sorrow with intense interiority: “I am not interested in what Bourdieu, or Kristeva, has to say about grief…. I don’t want a theory; I want the poem inside me. I want the poem to unfurl like a thousand monks chanting inside me. I want the poem to skewer me, to catapult me into the clouds.” With titles like “Sylvia Plath’s Elegy for Sylvia Plath,” M x T turns the mechanism of elegy on itself.
Queyras’s collection belongs to the genre of self-elegy, a literary tradition somewhat loosely defined and not without its critics. Eve C. Sorum, in her 2011 essay, “The Self-Elegy: Narcissistic Nostalgia or Proleptic Postmortem,” debates the merits of the form. She observes that self-elegy—which she terms the “often elided, younger sibling” of elegy—“requires the poet to take the place of both mourner and mourned, foregoing that essential element in an ethical relationship: imagining yourself in relation to an other.” If self-elegy means memorializing one’s own life, does it make for ethical—much less effective—poetry? Is the outside world really compelled to listen?
For better or worse, the emergence of the self within elegy is often understood to be an American innovation. Peter Sacks, writing on the English elegy, makes note of “the American elegy’s more overt and uneasy focus on the isolated self of the griever.” David Baker, in “Elegy and Eros: Configuring Grief,” goes one step further, explaining how the line between the American elegy and self-elegy is frequently blurred, as poets “become the subjects of their own elegiac impulses.” Even the most respected American elegists sometimes slip into self-reflection when elegizing others. As President Lincoln’s funeral procession passes by, Whitman can’t help thinking about his own mortality.
This inclination to apply elegy to oneself, though perhaps an American phenomenon, is not American in origin. It has a longstanding global heritage. Iraqi scholar Sinan Antoon, in his translator’s preface to Mahmoud Darwish’s In the Presence of Absence (Archipelago Books, 2011), notes that self-elegy is “an established genre in classical Arabic poetry, with roots going back to pre-Islamic times.” Deriving from this ancient tradition, In the Presence of Absence is part memoir, part meditation on life, language and the experience of exile. Written shortly before Darwish’s passing, the book pulls no punches; the unflinching poet stares his own existence in the face: “You are a dead man who has found himself alive.” Whereas autobiography usually deploys the first person, Darwish uses primarily “you” to address the poet’s younger self, at times the reader, and occasionally the world at large.
If self-elegy might initially seem to be navel-gazing, Darwish proves how a reflection on one’s own being can achieve meaningful scope. The poet employs metaphor to describe both his own deteriorating physical state as well as the impoverished condition of his people: “Everything here is proof of loss and lack. Everything here is a painful reminder of what had once been there. What wounds you most is that ‘there’ is so close to ‘here.’ A neighbor forbidden to visit.” Much as the word “there,” stripped of one letter, becomes its opposite, so thin is the line separating this Palestinian from the homeland of his youth. Ever mindful of these harsh dualities—home and exile, life and death, presence and absence—Darwish uses the example of his own mortality to illuminate greater humanitarian injustices.
In the process of elegizing himself and the world into which he was born, Darwish shifts the focus away from his own biography to the poems that will survive him. How might their interpretation change in his absence? (Referring to the historic handshake between Arafat and Rabin on the White House lawn, Darwish asks, “Where will meaning go when opposites meet?”) In Darwish’s eyes, the work of a poet is highly arduous and physical (“writing requires claws to carve into rock”) but it’s also a lesson in loosening one’s grip. He describes the process of poesis: “…letting the song / go at its gentle pace / turning east and west / leaping from sky to valley.” For Darwish, language belongs to the wild; the role of the author seems practically insignificant at such scale.
This trope of self-erasure is at the heart of self-elegy, but it’s also what makes the genre so puzzling, or even paradoxical. How can a poem’s voice elegize itself? Isn’t the very presence of a speaker an affirmation of life? Nichita Stănescu’s Wheel With A Single Spoke and other poems (Archipelago Books, 2012) wrestles with these inherent complexities. Translated by Sean Cotter, this compilation of the decorated twentieth-century Romanian’s poetry reveals Stănescu’s talent for testing the boundary lines between life and death. His sentences read as finely-wrought riddles: “I am a word spoken / that leaves behind a body.” […] “I am nothing but / a bloodstain / that speaks.” In Stănescu’s work—particularly his later poems—utterance and existence are close cousins; the speaker repeatedly pronounces himself dead, as if each poem constitutes his last breath. Self-elegy becomes ars poetica.
With “wing beating on wing,” Stănescu’s poems fight to remain buoyant, though the gravity of death is too great. Shadows of the poet’s World War II experience re-appear throughout, and violence is always close at hand, even during bucolic scenes: “The morning’s soft breeze, / I could choke its soft throat / without working too hard.” Stănescu elegizes himself as both brutality’s victim and its perpetrator: “But I am dead / as a gun shot / at the memories / of a newborn // But I am no longer / like the space / a star cut through / screaming.” The rhetoric of self-elegy is made more shocking by the terms of its description. Comparing one’s death to a fired gun—rather than the target at which it’s aimed—upends expectation. Gone is sentimentality (the innocent newborn, the shooting star) with a chilling hollowness in its place.
The poet-as-vessel is a familiar theme, but Stănescu makes it carnal: “I am the absurd body of ‘am’ / and its letters. / I am the place where ‘am’ exists / and the bed where it sleeps.” Whereas Darwish relates language to liberation, Stănescu focuses more on what’s contained within walls—the self as a shelter for words. “Inside me screams my heart / like a passenger who knows / his plane is going down / in flames.” This outcry resonates throughout Stănescu’s poetry: the frightful inevitability of death, the poet’s sacrifice of self.
Both Darwish and Stănescu use some version of self-elegy to address larger concerns, political and aesthetic in nature. Queyras’s work achieves a personal dimension as well, as she strives to make sense of her existence in the face of tremendous loss. Borrowing from the language of physics, she conceives of a formula for how grief works:
Who says math is unsentimental? In Queyras’s calculations, Feeling equals Memory multiplied by Time. Inspired by books belonging to Queyras’s late father, these diagrams help quantify sorrow but they provide no solutions; they only reinforce how passing years multiply the pain. She writes, “The body is fluid. I am leaking, / I no longer care who sees me leak.” By exposing the full toll of her suffering, Queyras shows how grief—like electrical current—shocks the system, sapping her vitality.
Queyras’s rendering of her sister’s final moments illustrates how self-elegy and elegy bleed together: “I held her briefly at the end because finally / She could not scowl me away. Felt her unlatch, / A small mass, rocketing like helium, body / Already a swelling replicate of self.” With this phrase “replicate of self,” Queyras marks how body and soul mirror each other: the life force taking flight, jettisoning the mass that remains. But the phrase is also an apt description for one’s relationship to a sibling. As Queyras bids farewell to her flesh and blood, her thoughts turn again to questions of her own perishability: “I am the only tree on the block refusing to let my leaves fall.”
In the wake of someone’s death, we are prone to ask each other: were you close? The question implies that grief is proportional to proximity; that we measure losses with respect to ourselves. In the hands of a capable poet, self-elegy is no more or less selfish. As rhetorical device, the self-elegy is an open forum for wide-ranging existential examination. It invites writers to elegize not only their own lives, but the unique circumstances and cultural landscapes that surround them.