Grief can be a kaleidoscope in that the pieces and fragments are set from the start, but each new spin of remembering provokes a surprise, a revisiting, a discovery of how things change when we touch them with our minds.
I learn so much from Lydia Davis’ “The Seals,” a short story about losing a sister and a father in the same year, tracking the emerging texture of grief through a form that is kaleidoscopic, something you spin and spin and watch settle into new combinations.
Davis struggles to make sense of re-visions, to explain her decision not to attend her sister’s funeral as reluctance: “….and the tenderness of my own feelings, which I did not want to share with strangers.” Let’s make an inventory of her strategies and techniques.
1 – Using objects and surroundings to carry the dialogue with absence
The speaker alternates between memories, emotive linchpins, and meditations in moving vehicles where she is a passenger. The story switches from trains to buses to cars. The body, itself, is a passenger, a passive observer in life’s passing.
The first New Year after they died felt like another betrayal–we were leaving behind the last year in which they had lived, a year they had known, and starting on a new year they would never experience.
Emotion is expressed by lack of control, by the sense of momentum in how the world carries on despite loss.
2 – Breaking old binaries to show how time has changed.
The old binaries (alive/dead) no longer apply in the speaker’s grieving mind: “It was as though not being alive did not have to mean she was dead, as though there were some third possibility.” The binary that suits the obit fails the existing relationship. For one must relate to the dead we have loved. One must inhabit, somehow, the tribute rather than pay it like money to the coroner.
3 – Characterizing the living with close, attentive mercy reserved for the dead
Loss makes every memory (even the bad ones) precious. Davis characterizes the narrator and the sister by leavening memory with mercy. The sister’s annoying “frantic” manner of speaking, her chatty conversational tone, her verbal intensity, are removed from realm of settled things and given to the kaleidoscope, where the narrator re-visions the sister’s mode as a defense– “As though she were afraid of something, fending something off.”
The things taken personally, the aspects in others that we decide to interpret, are now separate. The thing people hate about you (the excessive talking) becomes the thing they miss, the note that sets one apart.
J. M. Coetze’s novel The Death of Jesus (Viking, 2020), approaches grief in the living. An ailing son, Simon, begins to worry about what will be left if he dies. Simon asks a father who will write a book about “his deeds”. The father says he will try. And Simon adds:
“But then you must promise not to understand me. When you try to understand me, it spoils everything.”
This is the tension in writing grief: death wants a tribute, a loose epic, a fluid acceptance, but grief wants understanding, a narrative explanation that makes sense of things. There is a question of objectification in our attempts to understand or make sense of the dead, to speak FOR them rather than WITH them. This is always a challenge in writing someone but it is never as sharp as when writing those who cannot defend themselves.
I think we see this in Lydia Davis’ short story as well. The speaker doesn’t try to understand so much as characterize. By putting the focus on the narrator’s response and emotional processing, the reader learns a bit about the sister who died. But the reader does not understand the sister who died. Davis does not attempt to make her understood. That, too, is a form of respect.
Restoration (and loss) can inhabit a certain shape on the page, or can develop in the syntax and use of spacing. The time after death can feel like a series of fragments, disjointed memories, jumbled juxtapositions–none of which assemble into sense. This blurring is part of the time we know as death–to let fiction blur memoir and poetry leaves bruises on both, enacting the scar that results from the ruptured reality.
You know people from their scars–the ones they display and the ones they hide. The ones they pay to erase through surgery or therapy. I’m always interested in the unsightly thing.
In poetry, I am unsettled by line breaks. I haven’t found a formula or a school that applies to everything. The line break choices we make, the breaths broken one from another, the growl between can and kin, the way a word like taut implies density, the shared space between plume and plunge….
Or the history of a word, that which existed before we load it with our connotations. The weight of a word is its history.
Christopher Davis dedicated his book to his brother, Ben, who was murdered. The poems create agony in unusual ways by juxtaposing absurdity, pathos, self-pity, and lucid feeling. He uses the ordinary objects and reorients them to carry the eerie light of Ben’s death, for example, in “Look at the Obese Loser Trying Not to Pray.” Gerald Stern calls it “the direct encounter with the demonic”, or how Davis brings us closer to the untenable knowledge that death offers.
There were two souls inside him,
one his and one his dead brother’s,
each withheld from the other.
– “The Invisible Man”
Beth Gordon does this as well, writing from inside the space of losing a beloved grandchild to SIDS. This may feel dark, but maybe nothing is darker than silence. Maybe nothing is more difficult than the space we refuse to acknowledge. As you play with the writing exercises below, and maybe experiment with them, select one to focus on, one to share for feedback. In this space, nothing you can say or write is wrong.