A Mighty Fine Epitaph

Reviewed by McKinley Hellenes

Sina Queyras’ latest collection is brutal and breathtaking. A tactical field-manual, MxT navigates the landmines that linger in the terrain of the living long after the dead have been buried beneath it. Complete with diagrams and equations, MxT cold-comforts us with the hope that there is a science to grief and a procedure in place. But the poems themselves remind us that there is no such thing: “When in doubt, wear lipstick.”

This is not kindly work. This is necropsy at its finest. The collection is caustic, harrowing, leaving us gut-punched and spitting teeth. I can’t look them directly in the face without flinching. Queyras confirms the eerie superstition we all entertain–that the dead can hear us, and so can the void: “I have spent my life avoiding you, Emptiness,” the speaker admits, and yet she can’t shy away from her work. “I love the old questions,” she says. Chasing the old questions results in unconstrained meditations on loss and memory over which Queyras exhibits a reckless control. “Why is pain so much better than nothing?” she asks.

Elegies more instinctual than calculated are nonetheless precisely honed. The incisions they make sting like expertly slit wrists. This collection is a vehicle that will save you from the worst of the crash, but the poems themselves will bleed you dry. Yet this isn’t a meditation on futility. It’s not a dirge. It crackles, it screams. It burns. It remains even when we wish it wouldn’t. “Grief is too bright. Too Head-on. We want to hide it with the empties.”

The dead populating There Are No Solid Gold Dancers Anymore are mostly of the public variety. Adrienne Weiss employs a parade of familiar voices as oracles on life, loss, and our tawdry obsession with celebrity. Fairy-tale figures rub elbows with wage-slaves, and future starlets condescend to high-school nobodies. Former princesses hobnob alongside vaudeville legends. The deftly-handled vernacular of these impersonations remind us that we all inhabit the same world in our turn. Some of us gaze at the stars, some of us are the stars, and Death presides over us all like a game-show host whose finger hovers inexorably over the buzzer. “Here I am, a tramp, with a perfectly red mouth, her heart a perfectly arranged mess of rags,” Weiss laments in Judy Garland’s voice. “Old, hard me, forever talking to myself in the dark.”

As uncanny as Weiss’s impressions are, the unnamed narrators often resonate the longest. “What I do, what I’ve done, one day’ll make a mighty fine epitaph,” declares the speaker in the titular poem. “It is meaningless, dying,” shrugs another nameless voice within the same poem. “This summer, you kill yourself while I job search,” the final poem recounts, “wander Walmart’s maze of aisles, the devastating weight of stuff.” In Weiss’s realm, ordinary deaths reverberate on par with the celebrated.

Catherine Graham continues the theme of loss in Her Red Hair Rises With The Wings of Insects. Many of the poems begin life as glosas, but beyond retaining the four-line cabezas borrowed from the works of Dorothy Molloy, they swiftly develop forms of their own. As well crafted as Graham’s verses are, the italicized excerpts distract rather than illuminate: “The earth slides over my face. I see the exchange that’s happening—a dead mother wants out. Her red hair rises with the wings of insects, and I sink further than the lair of the fox.” What is intended as homage feels more like decoupage.

These poems feel needlessly secretive, the private cypher of a poet talking to herself, unaware that she has or even requires an audience. They retain a passivity perhaps too invested in the experiment of tribute to allow them to speak in their own voices. It may be unfair to pit Graham’s understated eloquence against Queyras’ unnerving incisions and Weiss’s deft verbal mimicry, but compared with the other two collections, there is very little distinction in these cunning but ultimately bloodless poems.

Each of these collections speak to the dead, through them, or for them, with grief as a communal tapestry. These poets show us that stripped down, the scaffolding of loss is, if not the same for all of us, at least darkly familiar. This is what we go to poetry for, to remind us of what we have left when what we love leaves us.

This review “A Mighty Fine Epitaph” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 161-62.

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