Black and white image of theater seats.

The poet Donna Masini is, among other things, an incisive chronicler of grief. That Kind of Danger (1994), her debut, dramatizes the finality of death throughout. In “At the Exhibit of Peter Hujar’s Photographs, Grey Art Gallery, NYC, 1990,” the narrator confronts grief and herself at the eponymous exhibit: “I see my face reflected in the glass, thrown back / at me as I weep for the dead and fear / for the dying.” Hujar’s photos—particularly his portrait of a man looking out from his “hospital veil”—cause her to “conjure the images of friends / as though I could divine which will be struck, / the way a douser holds a stick that begins to start / and shake when water is near.” She knows she’s powerless, but she’s determined to protect those she loves. “I want to hide my friends from God,” she thinks. “I barter with God for the lives I would save, / offer up what I want to keep what I love.”

Turning to Fiction (2004), Masini’s second collection, includes “Slowly,” in which the narrator recalls a trip to the zoo in fourth grade during which a snake swallows a rabbit. She and the other girls are “groaning, shrieking / but weren’t we amazed, fascinated, // saying we couldn’t look, but looking, weren’t we / held there, weren’t we / imagining—what were we imagining?” She marvels at the length of the snake’s throat and turns an otherwise routine event in the animal kingdom into an occasion of existential self-reflection:

...how the jaws kept opening

wider, sucking it down, just so
I am taking this in, slowly,
taking it into my body:

this grief. How slow
the body is to realize.
You are never coming back.

4:30 Movie (2018), Masini’s latest book, thematizes grief more deeply, more personally, and in more thoroughly cinematic terms than her previous work. The collection focuses on a particular grief—the death of Masini’s sister from lung cancer in 2014—even as it channels that grief through the experience and iconography of film. In an interview with Brooklyn Poets, Masini explains that the book is the result of her being “influenced by my use of film in teaching poetry, in part by how crucial a part of my life movies have been.” Indeed, the new poems impart the tonal quality of a matinee in which the cinema’s darkness is a rejoinder to—and an escape from—the outside world.

Some of these new poems are set in theaters; others reference specific movies (Yasujiro Ozu’s Noriko trilogy gets a shout-out), but nearly all of them consider the transformative potential of both film and grief. In “Movie,” for example, Masini writes,

Sometimes we walk out of ourselves, blinking into the light,
pulling our sweaters tighter, unprotected, regressed from our time

in the dark, the crowd snaking through the lobby, eager to
enter what we have left.

The cinematic experience changes moviegoers, “regresses” them, sensitizes them. Afterward, viewers drift out into life with sharpened senses, as Masini knows. In “Lights Go Down at the Angelika,” she writes: “Woman with Cilantro / listening to the rattle of the wrap, // the paper sound paper makes after you / have heard movie paper.” Such lines convey an ironic truth: cinema’s fictional worlds intensify one’s experience of reality. That sentiment recurs in “Watching the Six-Part Pride and Prejudice, Mid-Chemo, with My Sister,” in which Masini’s sister asks to stop the movie “when she’s afraid / something bad will happen.” The sister can’t handle how overwhelming her emotions are or how susceptible she is to them at the moment. The film activates the dread, or vulnerability, that Masini’s sister has heretofore muffled. Masini guarantees her it will be OK: “I leave her // on the couch with the last hours. / How much my sister will have to endure, / alone, with this new drama.”

In “Tracking Shot: Subway (Interior),” the narrator (Masini’s surrogate) notes that “[b]ad things tend to happen quickly / the doctor said last week.” Her sister’s illness requires a constant gauntlet of hospital tests and paperwork. The narrative breaks down toward the end of the poem when Masini settles into a directorial voice: “Frame the question. Make a scene. / A story is like an eye chart. Better this way or [lens flips] this way.” In this poem and several others in the book, she and her sister—both of them film buffs—personify the gestures and mechanics of film. Another poem, “Split Screen,” is formatted in two columns and extends the metaphor of trying to frame a scene: “Present: one sleeps, one ripens. / Listen, however unlike their lines / It depends on the lens.” In the prose poem “The Extra,” her sister’s life is dramatized as a script: “Once again she’s reading about impermanence, pencil in hand, starring / the parts she’s marked before.” And later: “Even when she watches a movie she imagines herself as one of the / faceless victims falling into a clump of leaves.”

4:30 Movie, then, is a book about the general ambience of film, although Masini does invoke specific titles—most notably, the original drive-in version of The Blob (1958), which screened in the 4:30 slot during Masini’s childhood and inspired the title of her book. In the film’s final scene, the hero—“his name was Steve in the movie and Steve in real life,” Masini writes, referring to lead actor Steve McQueen—and the police douse the blob with fire extinguishers to freeze it. A police officer observes that the gelatinous creature can’t be killed but can be stopped. The Air Force drops the blob into the Arctic, and then The End? appears on screen, a playful hint that perhaps the terror isn’t over. Masini is bemused by how hokey and silly the film is, the blob “mindless, deadly, malignant. Amorphous, devouring monster. / Why didn’t we laugh?” But by the end of the poem, she asks herself, “Why am I so frightened?” The whiplash of the question mimics the way viewers abruptly surrender to the magic of film.

Masini suggests that films are therapeutic but more as a stay against confusion than as interventions with true healing power. Indeed, a defeated pessimism runs through the book because in the end, nothing—not film, prayer, friendship, love, or medicine—can save her sister. Movies end, life ends, and that knowledge returns readers to the function of grief as performance. At its most public, grief is a role whose iterations and archetypes are now entrenched in the cultural imagination: the stoic widow, the inconsolable parents, the nearly shell-shocked child, et cetera. In “Gone Girl,” Masini enacts another familiar side of grief: anger.

Want to know what’s gone? My sister’s dead. That’s gone.
[…]
What is prayer but a rigged-up jerking doll hefting
its measly petitions—don't let her die, don't let her die

She ends the poem on an exasperated note that again likens grief to a movie:

When it’s over and the nauseous credits roll what’s gone

is time. Gone the girl praying to the puppeteer. That girl
strung out on prayer. She’s gone.

When Masini experiences loss on the page, readers become part of her performance, even if only as witnesses. “Deleted Scene: Last Day” captures Masini’s awareness of her roles as sister, caregiver, and mourner, all of which she enacts in two lines: “I’m sorry, my sister says. I’m sorry it’s taking so long // You must be bored to death.” The poem, like many in the book, is an elegy in medias res.

Masini includes a few of these short “deleted scenes” poems, and in another one, the doctor is on the phone with a diagnosis, and Masini (or her narrative stand-in) motions “thumbs up” to her sister because it is only pneumonia—for the time being anyway. There’s not much else she can do. In the aptly titled “Waiting Room,” Masini’s sister is “twisting dread into origami / tissues” as she’s treated in the hospital. “Is this what’s been waiting / all along?” she wonders. She steps out of the pain of the moment and considers how all the doctor visits and the lulls between diagnoses and the delay in test results are smaller episodes in a longer, more inevitable wait. “Now none of it matters,” she concludes: a fatalistic verdict borne of exhaustion.

Many poems in 4:30 Movie impart that same sense of futility. “What Didn’t Work” is a litany of failed treatments. Stripped of transitions and punctuation, the poem is literally a list of dashed hopes. Chemo didn’t work, and neither did prayer, meditation, or affirmation. Rosary beads and meatloaf and “thin sliced Italian bread with melted mozzarella” couldn’t relieve the pain. Buried within the list is movies—Masini’s acknowledgement that treatment shouldn’t be confused with a cure. The power of 4:30 Movie doesn’t depend on narrative suspense because the arc is evident early on: Masini’s sister dies. Rather, the book is the story of how her life ends, and its drama consists in asking readers: How many of your comforts are also delusions? When exactly does your spirit break?

The narrator’s spirit breaks often. “A Fable” begins with an amusing memory of the speaker tap dancing to a film, so footloose she almost feels as though she’s in water or that she’s Esther Williams, the famed swimmer: “All is blue, salty with prayer and incantation, // all dazzling aristocratic hands.” But she gets tired halfway through the poem. The movie begins to drone, and the narrative frays: “Oh what’s the use. It’s grief’s freeze-frame churchyard / with its fresh cut dirge, its pretend heaven.”

Though earlier works such as “Slowly” funnel toward finality—the poem ends with “[y]ou are never coming back”—the poems in 4:30 Movie seem to evaporate rather than conclude, evoking grief’s tendency to never fully resolve itself. “Movie” begins with a childhood memory of the narrator’s mother making an owl costume for her little brother. The poem then shifts with a cinematic cue—“cut now to this other fall”—to the narrator out with friends on a city night, many years later. “Sometimes we walk out of ourselves, blinking into the light,” armed with hope but tempered by experience: “We’re always waiting for the next thing // to change us.” The poem then returns to the young brother’s costume and to his performance on the school stage, but it doesn’t offer any grand answers. The narrator recalls how Gregor Samsa awoke one morning transformed into a giant bug in Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis,” and she wonders, “What did he dream? Did we find out? / Why remember the creature but not the dream?” She then asks about her costumed brother: “What was my brother thinking as he flapped and whoo’d / across that stage?” Surrounded by fictional and familial bodies that change, the narrator nonetheless remains static and unsatisfied.

“Water Lilies,” a long, imagistic sequence in the middle of the book, is grounded in the grief that permeates the collection. If placed at the start of the book, the poem’s scattered phrases and parenthetical asides could well come across as forced attempts at sentimentality. Instead, the poem feels inevitable as it evokes the deterioration of Masini’s sister. This far into the illness, what can films offer except escape? What else can Masini herself offer?

In a week I’ll
open a book: Art.
I’ll give her Art
prayer, the clinical trials
and all
will
be well

Masini doesn’t believe this, though. Later in the poem, the aside “this can’t be real” indicates that despite moments of hope, and despite temporary remissions, her sister’s condition is terminal. In later poems, such as “Deleted Scene: Bargaining (.56),” poetry is Masini’s last bulwark against despair: “Here I come again / with my abra / cadabra, my gang / of language, to beg, / harangue.”

In the world of 4:30 Movie, poetry and cinema both incubate grief. They’re art forms that disrupt and elongate time just as deep melancholy can disrupt time. I’m reminded of what the poet Fanny Howe writes in The Needle’s Eye: Passing through Youth (2016): “In early black-and-white film there was entropy with each passing textual image. Your brain adjusted to the shutter as the eye adjusts to the blink and the body adjusts to its own decay. I think black-and-white film is closer to personal memory than it is to our dreams.” In Masini’s collection, films are part of a psychic geography that’s at once discontinuous and inevitable—a geography in which a long-ago matinee and the death of the poet’s sister coexist simultaneously.

Caring for someone who is dying pushes one to exist in moments already tinged with nostalgia. The most mundane tasks radiate the pathos of being perhaps the last time. In “Washing Her Hair,” Masini’s love for her sister assumes a nearly ceremonial quality:

I warm the lather
in my palm,

dampen the fine, last
strands—all she has

left.

After rinsing, she folds her sister’s hair “the way I’ll hold / the fading paper // wreath she / made in first grade, // and lay it in its box.” Grief bridges the past and the present here, in much the same way that people long for previous versions of themselves or of loved ones who are now hurt or gone.

That poignant yearning calls to mind “The Last Movie,” a poem Rachel Hadas wrote about her late husband. The couple go to see Orson Welles’s Othello (1952), and she describes a funeral procession scene in the film: “The air was full of wailing. / Knives of sunlight glittered on the sea.” There’s no transition to the description of grief in the film or to the couple who “lurched out onto Fifty-Seventh Street. / You said ‘I think I’m dying.’” For both Masini and Hadas, film makes emotions more real. They—and we—might watch films to escape or to be entertained, but grief is inescapable. The cycle of sadness, film, and poetry is characterized by the inability of language and images to end pain. All they can do is help us, sometimes, to continue living.

In her first book, Masini writes of grief, “Let me be lonely, ugly, blind. Let me live / to know terrible defeat.” Now, wounded by the loss of her sister, she has a message for death, the divine, or whatever else is out there in the cosmos making irrevocable decisions:

I am tired. Deliver
me, whatever you are.
Help me, you who are never
near, hold what I love
and grieve, reveal this green
evening, myself, rain,
drone, evil, greed,
as temporary.

She has another request, too, as plaintive as it is impossible: “Leave me elbow-deep in / your whole grab-bag / of disaster. But bring / her back.”

Originally Published: July 23rd, 2018

Nick Ripatrazone is a contributing editor at The Millions. He has written for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Sewanee Review.

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