See What You Miss by Being Dead?
In the fall of 2002, I took a workshop at Emerson College run by the poet Bill Knott. So did Matt Rasmussen. For much of the semester, Matt turned in laconic poems with a Minnesota nature-lover bent: fields, trees with fiery foliage, waterfowl, thousands of lakes, snow, deer, deer in the snow. Most of them felt detached, and many of them felt as though they were not just choosing not to use the pronoun “I,” but were assiduously avoiding it for reasons the reader stood no chance of understanding.
One day, after Matt had turned in a poem about geese laughing at the narrator, Bill finally burst out: “Why are you writing these distant, impersonal poems? Write a poem with some personal investment.”
That night, Matt went home and wrote a poem called “After Suicide.” The suicide being referred to was that of his brother in 1991, more than 10 years before the workshop. The poem went on to become the first of the series of elegies that would constitute his debut collection, Black Aperture, published this past May. Reading the poem again more than a decade later in published form, I still find the piece as vivid and stunning as the day Matt handed it out to the class. “A hole is nothing / but what remains around it,” the poem begins, continuing:
My brother stood
in the refrigerator light
drinking milk that poured
out of his head
through thick black curls
down his back into a puddle
growing larger around him.
It ends with the image of the milk floating upward and outward, “filling every shadow / blowing the dark open.”
His brother’s death is what fills the resulting book’s every shadow—a book that would go on to win the 2012 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. The book itself is remarkable, one of the best of 2013, but even more remarkable is that when I asked Matt about it in an email interview, he said that even though his brother’s death is essentially what “made” him a poet—that “it informed all of my poetry” and “I started writing poetry after his suicide, in response to it, I guess”—he had never written directly about it until that critique from Bill.
“I’ve always remembered that comment, ‘Write a poem with some personal investment,’ and look at it as the moment that my book began,” Matt emailed. “It took me about 10 more years to finish the book (yikes), but that was where it started.”
Matt writes, in the poem “Burial,” “You have been dead // half of my life,” and this book gives the feeling of material that has been contemplated and crafted over a relatively great length of time. It feels perfected. So too does it feel like a representative example of how to deal honestly and effectively with personal tragedy in poems. Black Aperture differs significantly from other classic and contemporary elegies in that it pointedly does not make much of an effort to express the universal human experience of grief, but rather it insists on the strange and provocative aspects of the circumstances of Matt’s brother’s death. Its eschewal of the universal and insistence on the specific actually makes it more affecting for the reader and better able to achieve surprising empathy.
At its simplest, an elegy is a lamentation for one who is dead. Traditionally, an elegy traces the emotional arc of an expression of sorrow followed by praise and commemoration of the life and work of the deceased, eventually winding up with a sense of solace. At its simplest, Black Aperture is an elegy. But it is not simple and it is not traditional, and its complexity and its breaking of tradition speak to why it works so well. It defies the genre’s conventions and refuses relief—there are grace notes of peace, but there are no easy answers.
People have been writing elegies for their dead brothers since Catullus’s “Carmen 101” and even before. Catullus, quite movingly, adheres in his poem to the standard elegy format, completing the requisite arc in a mere 10 lines before concluding: “Now and forever, brother, Hail and farewell.” A much more recent, and also wonderful, fraternal elegy, Anne Carson’s Nox, takes this piece by Catullus as a jumping-off point.
Matt’s book is striking, though, for being less of a generally relatable “I salute you and goodbye” and more of a “Why did you—how could you—do that to yourself and to us?” If Catullus—and many traditional elegies—are essentially saying, “See you later, and I hope maybe to have a death as noble or as universally human as yours,” Matt is refusing to say either of these things, just as he refuses to end in a place of relief.
His elegies are noteworthy for the way they are angry and funny in addition to plaintive. Matt’s poems are not without their melancholic moments, but they gain their power by venturing into a voice that is comic and bitter—accusatory, even, as in the title poem “Aperture”:
The fall after
you murdered you,
I burned your letter
in a mound of leaves
on our lawn.
The word “aperture” suggests a camera, its focus and speed, as well as the bore of a rifle, its precision and intensity. Like a camera, Matt takes shots from multiple perspectives of the same event, suggesting an effort at capture or mastery. But “aperture” also suggests something that is either always opening, or that might close and then reopen—something like grief, especially like the grief that follows death from suicide.
In his email, Matt said that here and elsewhere, he was “working against” the usual movement of an elegy because “I saw death by suicide as not really something to get over as much as something to live with” and that “I didn’t feel like I could say the final word about my brother’s suicide. So I wrote the opposite of a closure poem.”
This is not to say that elegies should not strive for closure or universality. Many do, and many do it well. They aim at these targets and hit them—as, historically, W.H. Auden does, both in his highly specific “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” and his more general “Funeral Blues,” and as, more recently, Tracy K. Smith does throughout her book Life on Mars. At their broadest, these kinds of elegies run along the lines of: “This is an experience of the death of a loved one which sits heavy upon my heart, but which unites me with the rest of humanity, which either has suffered already or will eventually suffer a similar loss, so when I speak my grief, I am in some sense speaking everyone’s.”
Smith’s elegizing of her father is a project in which she—using the tropes of space (her father worked on the Hubble telescope)—literally universalizes (as in: situates colossally in the scope of the universe) his death. She uses the vastness of the cosmos to offer hope, too, to herself and to the reader, that her father and others who have died might not be merely dead but changed. In “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” she writes that “Maybe the dead know, their eyes widening at last, / Seeing the high beams of a million galaxies flick on / At twilight.” And at the end of “The Speed of Belief,” she says, “I pray you are what waits / To break back into the world // Through me.” This is an accomplished collection and a valid approach.
But Matt is doing something else. He focuses not merely on how the experience of his brother’s suicide is, as the reader could probably imagine, really sad and fairly relatable, but also on how the experience is—unexpectedly, to him, and unimaginably, to the reader—incredibly weird. He does this to an even greater extent than other poets who have traversed similar terrain, most famously Ted Hughes’s 1998 collection Birthday Letters, a poetic memoir of Sylvia Plath.
Many poets, Hughes included, even through their bewilderment, attempt sympathy for the suicide, to understand the suicide’s decision. Maxine Kumin, in her poem “How It Is” on Anne Sexton’s 1974 suicide, writes: “Shall I say how it is in your clothes? / A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.” And Matthew Dickman, in his 2012 book Mayakovsky’s Revolver, writes of his beloved, suicided older sibling: “[S]o I put on my black-white / checkered Vans, the exact pair of shoes / my older brother wore when he was still a citizen of the world,” actually placing himself in the suicide’s shoes.
Matt, instead, insists on the inaccessibility of what the suicide has done. In this regard he’s more like Mary Karr, who wrote, “[E]very suicide’s an asshole,” of David Foster Wallace—“There is a good reason I am not / God, for I would cruelly smite the self-smitten”—although for Matt the strangeness of the experience puts the suicide even beyond the reach of his judgment and the judgment of all those left living. His is not a hopeful collection.
If elegies such as Smith’s seem to say that everyone will have the same death, basically, Matt’s seem to say that some people’s deaths are just different and that his brother’s death is not one that he wants—that it is unique in comparison to everyone else’s. It is presented as singular. “There is a strange anger toward the person who’s committed suicide that might not be present when someone similarly dies unexpectedly,” he said in our email interview. “Certainly there is anger and disbelief when someone tragically dies, but with suicide it’s directed at the person who has died. This anger, however, is tempered with a feeling of remorse or intense sorrow for the person who took his or her own life because no longer are they the person you knew. […] When someone dies of suicide there is a reluctance to talk about them, or remember them, because they are no longer who you thought they were, so I think there tends to be an immense silence that surrounds a suicide.”
In this regard, his elegies are more like those of Ruth Stone, also a frequent elegizer of a suicide: that of her husband Walter. Her poems, too, possess a silence—a suppression of the dead loved one—but also a loudness that happens when the loved one appears again, unbidden, running as an undercurrent through every other activity those left behind have to do just because they’re still alive.
Stone’s poem “Curtains“ evokes this ever-present absence, this loud silence, with humor and anger similar to Matt’s. The poem begins:
Putting up new curtains,
other windows intrude.
As though it is that first winter in Cambridge
when you and I had just moved in.
Now cold borscht alone in a bare kitchen.
She then moves to the question “What does it mean if I say this years later?” Years for her—her husband took his own life in 1959, and this poem appears in her 1987 collection Second-Hand Coat—seem to be a key factor in the way she too will never achieve closure because of what her husband did. The poem ends with a funny-sad, accusatory question that its recipient can never answer: “See what you miss by being dead?”
Matt, too, seems to want readers to feel the matchlessness of his experience and for them to find his pain through the experience’s strangeness, as in the poem “Outgoing,” which begins:
Our answering machine still played your message,
and on the day you died Dad asked me to replace it.
I was chosen to save us the shame of dead you
answering calls. Hello, I have just shot myself.
To leave a message for me, call hell.
None of this should suggest that poets need to have an inscrutable tragedy in their past to achieve a poetry of great personal investment. Most everyone can think of poems that come from a place of deep individual significance and that have been worked on for years, but that still are terrible for being maudlin or vague. If poets are going to write about something that matters, they need to consider ways they might do so that are not exhausted, expected, or kitsch.
Matt was able to follow Bill’s advice, which appears straightforward but is deceptively difficult. Black Aperture succeeds by accessing its great personal subject through the concrete textures of a day-to-day life rendered suddenly surreal; it locates a vibrant middle ground between, as Matt emailed me, “the dark recesses of your grief and the bright world of life, the world that forces you to live and eat and do stupid, mundane everyday things,” a state of sophisticated dividedness evoked in one of his favorite elegies, “Little Elegy” by Keith Althaus, which ends:
You hear it underground.
Where the worms live
that can be cut in half
and start over
again and again.
Their heart must be
in two places at once, like mine.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...