Telling the Body to the World: Three Recent Elegies

Reviewed by Jennifer Baker

The elegy is a roadmap; it is the seared memory of a journey through the incommunicable and irreconcilable isolation of grief, and the re-entry of the bereaved into the social world. It is the literary ritual of mourning, and as such functions as both a private and public record of transformation of the body and of the psyche. Nora Gould’s Selah, Cornelia Hoogland’s Trailer Park Elegy, and Sandra Ridley’s Silvija are all attentive to the transformative power of this ritual, and there is much to grieve in each: the losses of safety, love, personality, and agency among complicated histories of abuse and illness, the losses of family members, and the threat of looming ecological disaster. But while Selah’s and Trailer Park Elegy’s greatest achievements are found in the combination of image and narrative that reconnects the speaker to her landscape and its deeper ecological history, Silvija is the book that most directly relates this ritual to sound and language in their material senses, inhering in the raw connection between sound and content.

Of the three collections, Selah is most closely linked with narrative. Nora Gould’s second collection, it traces the complexities, losses, and unsettling harshness of living with a husband in the grips of the early stages of dementia. In many senses, this collection carefully mourns the loss of the familiar: the “stillborn” grief must develop slowly along with the terminal illness and stifled mortality of the beloved partner whose “face closes” and “folds shut.” This linked poetic sequence performs the slow accumulation of meaning, the wreckage of collapse piling in on itself as we move through the text. But Gould also shows how careful attention to—and willingness to rejoin—the broader environment around her, to notice “[a] hank of alfalfa snagged on the carcass” of a coyote, or to allow the moths and snow to settle into the dust of her jacket, can become a healing practice for the speaker. She reminds us, from within this slow collapse and change, to “Breathe. There is air in the room.” Eventually, this is the practice that allows the speaker the clarity and devotion to see and accept her husband, both as he was and as he is: “I will go home and Charl will be himself. / He is himself. That’s the thing. He is.”

Similarly, Cornelia Hoogland’s Trailer Park Elegy roots the speaker’s grief over her brother’s sudden death in the deep time of the Salish Sea and surrounding landscape. Detailing her brother’s recovery from addiction and the years—“pure gravy”—before the winter car accident that caused his death, Hoogland weaves grief into the everyday fact of her presence in the world, from the “No!” erupting from her thermos of coffee to the wail that “lifts the rocks from the beach, / bellows the sand, / the bay.” Unlike in Selah, where such externalization of grief reaches mostly into the speaker’s immediate surroundings, in Trailer Park Elegy, grief is represented by a sonic void that opens in the darkness around the speaker. In this kinetic silence, “the Deep Bay opening the mouths of the dead,” the speaker’s grief transforms itself into an electrified transience, a call and response between the living and the dead through the dark: “Never know where you are. Where are you?” Grief and love intertwine, find themselves again and again in the geological history of place.

In Sandra Ridley’s Silvija, a 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize finalist, the embodiment of grief sublimates narrative detail into sensory experience, opting for the raw sensation of sound to express the suffering of abuse and terminal illness. Poems that “Swallow the sword / swallow the tongue”; they are spiked with the rage and urgency of feeling one’s way through traumatic memory. Silvija pleads, “Conspectus tuo viam meam / direct a way / with your sight.” The poetry enacts this missive; each section oscillates dialectically with sections titled “In Praise of the Healer,” careful islands of clear imperatives that drive the rest of the elegies toward—not resolution, but integration and transformation, and, finally, a reclamation of agency: “Rest in me. / What I mean is this is where I choose to die.”

Each of these books is moving; but the stunning rawness, and simultaneous devotion, of Silvija is a rare find.

This review “Telling the Body to the World: Three Recent Elegies” originally appeared in Concepts of Vancouver: Poetics, Art, Media Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 235 (Winter 2017): 146-147.

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