Susan Stewart writes for The Nation this week about women and elegy, citing John Milton’s “Lycidas” and Percy Shelley’s “Adonais" as classic predecessors, along with Wordsworth, Elizabeth Bishop, and Tennyson; she also notes how "Thomas Hardy’s searching, ambivalent reflections upon the death of his first wife in his magisterial Poems 1912–1913 later provided an important model for book-length elegiac sequences, among them Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters (1998), with its belated address to Hughes’s first wife, Sylvia Plath"; and mentions the Milanese poet Milo De Angelis’s Tema dell’addio (Theme of Farewell), from 2005, a meditation on the early death of De Angelis’s wife, the poet Giovanna Sicari.

Stewart goes on, however, to review a few contemporary writers who are breaking new ground in the form, writing book-length elegies of "marked formal originality": Mary Jo Bang, with Elegy (2007); Susan Howe, with That This; Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and her Heavenly Questions; Anne Carson, with Nox; and C.D. Wright, in One With Others (which just won the Lenore Marshall Award). Of these, she writes:

Carson mourns a brother; Wright, a friend; and Howe and Schnackenberg, husbands. What is perhaps most striking about these books is the formal singularity of each poet’s lament. Schnackenberg adheres to a relentless iambic pentameter throughout a six-poem sequence, whereas Howe, Carson and Wright each set the sung emotions of lyric against prose passages, textual fragments, visual images and even research notes.

She notes that times have changed, and women's responses to elegy with them--these are now first-world cultures of mourning; and sacred rituals have disappeared. "Such rituals have been replaced by what Wallace Stevens called “the mythology of modern death”: extemporary rites that place an increasing emphasis on individual histories and character," writes Stewart.

The piece is most interesting when she looks closely at the poets' work. Regarding Susan Howe's That This (New Directions, 2010), which John Latta also reviewed:

That This has three sections and a final fragment. The first section, “The Disappearance Approach,” is a direct prose narration of Hare’s death punctuated by reflections and citations from Howe’s reading. “Frolic Architecture,” a phrase borrowed from Ralph Waldo Emerson, is the title of the long second section, an interlude of ripped and rearranged passages from a copy of the diary of Edwards’s sister, Hannah Edwards Wetmore (1713–73), who writes of her certainty that “our lives are all exceeding brittle and uncertain.” Arranged in various patterns and shapes on the page, the fragments seem not only scattered but also suspended, twisted and vulnerable to damage, an impression enhanced by their juxtaposition to six shadowy, abstract black-and-white photograms. Made by James Welling, the photograms evoke shapes viewed in water and the shapes of water itself, an effect Welling achieved by putting layers of paint between layers of Mylar applied to photosensitive paper. Water, eroder of all forms, recurs at intervals and seems to fill the pages, whereas the slight inscriptions of the diary fragments seem shakily held by a breath and about to vanish.

In Schackenberg, Stewart considers several of the religious traditions that break down and cohere again in the book. "Though armed with enduring and farflung metaphysical allusions, Schnackenberg records many of the brute facts of her beloved’s illness and death, including his doctors’ use of the absurdly named narcotic analgesic Sublimaze. Taking up her pencil, a 'Venus Velvet No. 2,' she stages a kind of war between writing and ending—a war she cannot win but can at the least narrate and shape."

Of Anne Carson's Nox, she writes:

To call Nox a work of poetry seems too superficial a judgment; the text is a sequence of minimal prose fragments, notes the poet has written to herself, where everything—images, correspondence, classical texts, commentary—is treated as if it were a fragment of an ancient poem. When Carson uses “discandied,” a word Shakespeare turns to in Antony and Cleopatra to express the dissolution of sweetness that accompanies disillusionment, the reader feels a certain frisson of recognition comparable to the insights Carson seems to have had by tracing, in retrospection, the revealing postures and shadows in family photographs. Discandied: the word persists, like the proper name of her brother, Michael, a messenger without a message.


C.D. Wright’s One With a civic poem of celebration: a documentary record of the life of Margaret Kaelin McHugh, an Arkansas friend and mentor of Wright who died in September 2004 in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. An autodidact, McHugh was called V by her circle of young acolytes during a period when she was immersed in Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name. . . .

As in Carson’s Nox, there is another death behind the death of the figure in the foreground: the suicide, in 1978, by self-inflicted pistol wounds to the heart, of the prolific 30-year-old Arkansas poet Frank Stanford, who was Wright’s companion and artistic collaborator during her youth. Midway through the book, Wright mentions that McHugh provided the photograph she used for the cover of Stanford’s magnum opus, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. Closing the circle with a citation from that work, Wright gives Stanford both the first and the last words of One With Others: “I want people of twenty-seven languages walking back and forth saying to one another hello brother how’s the fishing/and when they reach their destination I don’t want them to forget if it was bad.”

Read the entire piece here.

Originally Published: August 26th, 2011