(Portland, OR: Octopus Books, 2013)
From Catullus to Carson, poets have grappled with how to properly address the dead, seeking a vocabulary that can perform the burial ritual, communicate sorrow, can celebrate and perhaps even immortalize. Are words ever enough, lofted as they are into a casket? While Amy Lawless’s My Dead is not “just” elegy—in turns it is a tragicomic celebration of life, of sex, of the ridiculousness of a humanity that can be simultaneously affected and unaffected—it is the certainty of death, that longing to speak to the dead and the impossibility of the words to convey or carry our messages, that underpins this startling, devastating collection. “I’m a poet,” she writes in the title poem of the collection, “but doesn’t that just mean/I’m giving up some necessities/to make room for more difficult things?”
And certainly, throughout the collection Lawless engages with the difficult things: the death of a family member, the guilt of surviving 9-11, one’s own mortality, the inability to find intimacy in a hyper-mediated world, the ambivalence that accompanies interconnectivity. What is particularly inventive is the way the voice here is able, often in rapid succession, to elicit laughter before strangling it with gravitas. In “Cannibal Wedding,” for example, the courtship of cannibals, a vehicle for a light-hearted surrealism in the vein of Dean Young or Jennifer L. Knox (“they’re just like us. First awkward date includes coffee and alcohol”) becomes a plaintive expression of a bride’s alienation: “she, who had looked inside herself and knew that it’s just fucking wrong to expect another person to fill one’s vessel, cried too because she was the loneliest. She was the one person whose heart needed to be eaten the most.” Rather like seasoned stand-up comedy the timing here is impeccable: the laughs underscore the seriousness and vice versa.
Throughout My Dead, the scientific and technological rub up against emotional content in an ever evolving attempt to grapple with meaning. In “Elephants in Mourning,” a series that directly interrogates the process of burial and memorial, the voice intones “When a human dies/ A person who’s spent a hundred thousand dollars on medical school/ Will confirm that/ Something is gone/Spirit? Animus? Evelyn?/ Something left the room.” Here, the objective fact of death, and, by extension the language surrounding it, fails in both the task of description and of properly memorializing. This anxiety is later made quite literal, and the regret of not being able to tell something to a deceased loved one is deflated but therein made that much more bittersweet: “Like it would matter now,” states the voice, almost flatly, “if he had known one more thing as an alive person.”
These tendencies, the anxieties of simultaneously needing and being unable to properly face the facts, seem to crystallize in the final series of this collection, “The Skull Behind My Face.” Here, the voice takes on the fact of her own mortality: “It is by pure chance and also by no chance at all that my fear of death has arrived at this time.” As it must, this leads to, if not an appreciation of life, than a kind of clear-eyed appraisal: “for the human mind is limited in its multitudes and one should not be expected to live daily facing the very thing it is working so hard to avoid doing.” This is then complicated by the recognition that, as an artist, the voice must recognize that this fear is “related to my own understanding of certain unfulfilled personal accomplishments—the selfish antagonist: my own ego.” The writing is then a way to cheat death: not only a way to call out to the deceased, but also a way to reach for immortality in an ephemeral world. Like the flowers we bring to our dead, or rather like the words that we use to describe them, what we offer to the departed is a poetry that is “concurrently dying and blossoming…Each petal both in bloom & new, but also dried out.”
And what of the unmentionable relief to remain among the living? How to go on, to exit the cemetery? Reading and then re-reading Lawless’s My Dead, I found the words of a fellow traveler going through territory that, despite having been mapped and remapped repeatedly throughout history, will always feel uncharted. Here is a poetry that, in speaking to the dead and in speaking about death, urges us to go on living.
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Mark Gurarie, a graduate of the New School’s MFA program, lives in Brooklyn, where he works as an adjunct instructor of English.