Death & Co: The Contemporary Elegy and Poetry of Mourning in a Season of Grief

Death & Co.: The Contemporary Elegy and the Poetry of Mourning in a Season of Grief 

Andrew Mulvania 


Obit by Victoria Chang. Copper Canyon press, 2020, 120 pp., $17 (paper).

Say Something Back & Time Lived, Without Its Flow by Denise Riley. NYRB Books, 2020, 136 pp., $16 (paper).

Riven by Catherine Owen. a misFit Books, 2020, 88 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Middle Distance by Stanley Plumly (posthumous collection). W.W. Norton & Co., 2020, 96 pp., $16.95 (paper).

“The problem / with everything is death,” writes Diane Seuss in frank: sonnets (one of the more noteworthy poetry collections to appear in the past year, though one not reviewed here as it is not principally concerned with death and dying). Seuss continues, “There really is no other problem / if you factor everything down.” Judging by the number of recent collections of poetry concerned with grief and grieving, and simply consulting our own experience, it is difficult to argue with Seuss: death, and our response to it—grief, mourning—does, in fact, seem to be the greatest, most intractable obstacle to our happiness in this life. But that has long been so. Just this year, archaeologists discovered the oldest known burial site, in Kenya, the grave of a child, dating back more than 78,000 years. The position of the bones upon examination revealed that the child had been buried with its head pillowed, its body swaddled in a shroud, suggesting the ancient origins of our need to honor and lament the dead in formal ritual, whether by language or gesture.  

New and Recent Southern Writing

New and Recent Southern WritingBy Samuel Pickering

Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2020. 312 pp., $26.95 (hardcover). Kudzu Telegraph by John Lane. Hub City Press, 2008. 156 pp., $11.95 (paper).Seven Days on the Santee Delta by John Lane and Philip Wilkinson. Evening Post Books, 2020. xiv+144 pp., illustrated, $60 (hardcover). Indigo: Arm Wrestling, Snake Saving, and Some Things in Between by Padgett Powell. Catapult, 2021. 272 pp., illustrated, $16.95 (paper).You Want More: Selected Stories by George Singleton. Hub City Press, 2020. xiii+366 pp., $27 (hardcover).

Intersectionality and Identity: Four Recent Women’s Memoirs

Four Memoirs

Lisa Katz


Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey. Ecco Press, 2020, 224 pp., $16.99 (paper). 

Terroir: Love, Out of Place by Natasha Sajé. Trinity University Press, 2020, 207 pp., $18.95(paper).

Mouth Full of Seeds by Marcela Sulak. Black Lawrence Press, 2020, 113 pp., $17.95 (paper)

Recollections of My Non-Existence by Rebecca Solnit, Granta, 2020, 244 pp., £16.99(hardcover).


However solitary, memoir reading, like memoir writing, participates in an important form of collective memorialization, providing building blocks to a more fully shared national narrative.—Nancy K. Miller


In in her iconic essay on the memoir genre, “But Enough About Me,” scholar Nancy K. Miller makes an optimistic claim: that the form, often derided as belletristic, has an active social, even political, function. It enables readers to enlarge the national picture in which their own storytakes place. And so, she writes, memoir “may well be the most important narrative mode of our contemporary culture.”

In the books under consideration, the American narrative expands to include women writing from biracial, bisexual, and binational points of view. The authors come  to us from the segregated South; from a combination of East Coast locations and theocratic Salt Lake City; from a winding route that starts in rural Texas and ends in Israel; and from San Francisco as it gentrifies. Their stories reveal a highly variegated way to live as an American woman. Each writer has in common with the others a desire to understand her own provenance and development and, to a degree, to decipher the meaning of her narrative within the larger picture. Race figures in three of these works, religion in a fourth, and gender inequality emerges in all of them.


Review: May I Be Frank? Further Hideous Progeny of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

May I Be Frank? Further Hideous Progeny of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Kate McIntyre

Frankenstein in Bagdad by Ahmed Saadawi, Jonathan Wright trans. Penguin Books, 2018, 281 pp., $16 (paper).

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson. Jonathan Cape, 2019, 344 pp., $27 (hardcover).

Destroyer by Victor LaValle, Dietrich Smith illus. Boom! Studios, 2018, 160 pp., $19.99 (paper).

Comemadre by Roque Larraquy, Heather Cleary trans. Coffee House Press, 2018, 129 pp., $16.95 (paper).

Concurrent with the 2018 bicentennial of the initial publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, a new crop of narratives retell, reimagine, resuscitate, and remix the urtext. These books are the latest in a long line of Shelley’s “hideous progeny” spanning nearly one hundred feature films, countless television episodes, songs, comics, toys, video games, and even a very pink (the color of the monster’s flesh?) strawberry-flavored breakfast cereal, Franken Berry. Frankenstein’s monster no longer only terrifies: he counsels us as a wise father figure, he makes us laugh, he sells us things.

Review: Collected in 2020–Recent Essay and Story Collections of Note

Collected in 2020—Recent Essay and Story Collections of Note

Sam Pickering

Scott Russell Sanders, The Way of Imagination: Essays. Counterpoint, 2020, 259 pp., $16.95. Paperback.

Megan Harlan, Mobile Home: A Memoir in Essays. The University of Georgia Press, 2020. 171 pp., $22.95. Paperback.

Gilbert Allen, The Beasts of Belladonna. Slant Books, 2020. 156 pp., $34 hardcover, $19 Paperback.

Jay Parini, Borges and Me: An Encounter. Doubleday, 2020. 299 pp., $27.95. Hardcover.

Review: Why, Oh Why, Poetry? On Recent Prose about Poetry and the Future of the Art

Why, Oh Why, Poetry?: On Recent Prose about Poetry and the Future of the Art

Andrew Mulvania


Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder. Ecco, 2017, 256 pp., $24.99 (hardcover).

The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016, 96 pp., $13 (paper).

How Poems Get Made by James Longenbach. W. W. Norton, 2018, 176 pp., $15.41 (paper).

We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress by Craig Morgan Teicher. Graywolf, 2018, 176 pp. $16 (paper).


I, too, dislike it.

     Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in

     it, after all, a place for the genuine.

—Marianne Moore

“Poetry” (1967)

Why poetry, indeed? Or, more pointedly: Why poetry anymore? Why, in the year 2020—when there are so many other seemingly more compelling or at least immediately engaging technologies clamoring for our attention, all of which surrender their rewards with much less effort—would anyone bother to read, let alone write, poetry? Such a question would of course be heresy among the poet friends in my circle of acquaintance, but what about the majority of ordinary people for whom an answer to this question, in the form of some sort of justification for reading poetry, would not be at all obvious?

Review: Marching On: Rereading Little Women and Louisa May Alcott

You likely know the plot of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868-9 novel, Little Women. Whether you’ve read the book or seen one of its adaptations to film or screen, you probably have some recollection of the four March sisters’ comings-of-age in New England during and just after the Civil War. Poor but resourceful, the sisters are Meg, who dreams of wealth and fame as an actress but finds fulfillment in marriage and motherhood; Jo, the strong-willed writer, who helps support the family by publishing potboilers, then sets aside her literary aspirations to launch a boys’ school with her husband, Professor Bhaer; Beth, gentle and musical, who succumbs to scarlet fever; and Amy, the artistic and urbane youngest, who ultimately marries their rich neighbor, Laurie. The girls’ mother, Marmee, shepherds them through the tumult of adolescence with support from Hannah, their housekeeper, and limited counsel from Mr. March, who is away as a chaplain in the Union Army for half the book and absorbed in his own ministerial and philosophical pursuits for the rest. 

I read Little Women for the first time in elementary school.

Unencumbered Exuberance: Four Jewish Comic Novelists of Note

In the titular essay of Adam Kirsch’s essay collection Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer? the critic and poet recounts the ways in which many of his and my canonical forebears rejected the moniker. He quotes Philip Roth referring to “American Jewish Writer” as an epithet. Saul Bellow was slightly more diplomatic, saying, “I have tried to fit my soul into the Jewish-writer category, but it does not feel comfortably accommodated there. Lionel Trilling couldn’t find “anything in [his] professional intellectual life” that traced back to his Judaism.

Radical Research and the Scientific Method: Tracking a New Trajectory through Four Recent Poetry Collections

Bradfield, Elizabeth. Toward Antarctica. Boreal Books, 2019. 160 pp. $19.95, paper.

Lee, Ed Bok. Mitochondrial Night. Coffee House Press, 2019. 88 pp. $16.95, paper.

Wahmanholm, Claire. Wilder. Milkweed Editions, 2019. 96 pp. $16.00, paper.

Roripaugh, Lee Ann. tsunami v. the fukushima 50. Milkweed Editions, 2019. 120 pp. $16.00, paper.


When Muriel Rukeyser’s 1938 classic The Book of the Dead was re-issued in 2018, edited and with a new introduction by Catherine Venerable Moore, it became clear that a major, though under-discussed, Modernist innovation was docupoetics. While many readers struggle to understand how certain racist, anti-Semitic, and Fascist writers could be considered so essential for so long, contemporary poets are finding influence in less canonized poets of the twentieth century whose docupoetic aesthetics are proving to be powerfully resonant for the present historical moment.

Gathering Places: The Stories of Six Women and the Worlds They Created

The Unfinished Palazzo: Life, Love and Art in Venice, Judith Mackrell, Thames & Hudson, 2017, 408 pp., $34.95. Harcover

The Riviera Set: Glitz, Glamour, and the Hidden World of High Society, Mary S. Lovell, Pegasus Books, 2017, 434 pp., $27.95. Hardcover

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home, Denise Kiernan, Touchstone, 2017, 388 pp., $28. Hardcover

A Season of Splendor: The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York, Greg King, Wiley, 2009, 508 pp., $35. Hardcover.

For Friedrich Nietzsche, greatness was achieved through the full, unflinching realization of self by turning life into a work of art. Separated by time and place, six unique women—Luisa Casati, Doris Castlerosse, Peggy Guggenheim, Maxine Elliot, Edith Vanderbilt, and Caroline Astor—all embody these notions of self-realization and life as art. Despite social conventions meant to dictate the courses of their lives, these independent women reinvented themselves through creativity and tenacity by fashioning worlds in which they could find full expression. The houses they bought or built and the milieux that grew up around them supported their ventures in art, commerce, and activism, ventures that have fascinating stories of their own. The histories of these houses are as richly textured and varied as the lives of their most famous occupants.