Dispatches | October 13, 2010

Alas, this blog cannot be weekly.  My apologies to Nick Courtright, but I was out of town last weekend, and returned to a stack of submissions for the reading.  Reading poetry submissions will always be my number one.  If you have not read Courtright’s poem “Goddess”, you can find it in our Poem of the Week archive.  Prepare to be delighted, particularly if you are among the many and anxious of us who grind our teeth.

This week, we’re featuring “Scale” by John Evans, a poem from our current issue, Vol. 33:2.  If you haven’t purchased that issue yet, act now!  Our new issue will hit the shelves soon.

As Evans explains in his author’s note, these poems are selections from a series of elegies he wrote after the death of his first wife.  He discusses how he “wanted to capture, without affectation, the sensibilities of grief and mourning.”  There is no loud weeping for Adonais, no shattering of leaves.  Evans attends to a different sort of honesty about grief—not the high-emotional performances of Shelley and Milton, but quieter, daily emotions that continue after the formal occasions for mourning are over.

There are two things that interest me about Evans’s approach to the elegy.  First is his choice to write a series.  The elegiac series has many precedents—from poems divided by sections like Shelley’s “Adonais” and Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” to Tennyson’s more distinct sections in “In Memoriam,” to contemporary, book-length series by poets like Marie Howe, Brenda Hillman, and Mary Jo Bang.  In some ways, the series relates to what critics name “melancholic mourning,” when the mourner is unable to find consolation, but constantly re-experiences grief—a phenomenon many attribute to contemporary society’s lack of adequate mourning rituals.

In another way, the series poem is also just a record.  On the one hand, it is a way of securing memories of the deceased, or of sorting through whatever is unsettling in those memories.  On the other hand, the series poem often records the poet’s attempt to make sense of grief itself, and the form offers a means of tracking whether and how grief changes.  In Evans’s poem, for example, he is not framing a memory with his wife (though he does this in other poems) but a memory of an earlier moment of grieving.  Part of what makes this poem so moving is that he addresses it to his wife, which gives the impression both that he didn’t know a way to try to address her after she died (he has to tell her what happened then), and that he has somehow, through the series form maybe, or through the out-of-time powers of lyric, found a way to confide in her now.

I’ve always thought the poetic series bears some relationship to the pastoral procession.  In the pastoral, processors present a range of different faces (and phases) of grief, and the depiction of their physical movement across a landscape literalizes the movement through the stages of grief. But as Tennyson and most contemporary poets have shown, this idea of progress from point A to point B does not reflect the real complexity of the situation.  I think this is why I’m persuaded by Evans’s decision to mix up the chronological order of his poems.  He works against the idea of the progressive stages of grief; instead, he records how grief’s intensities are unpredictable—in “There are No Words,” for example, playing his wife’s favorite music and even chopping onions have no effect on the speaker, even though he seems to wish they would produce a cathartic response, whereas in “Scale,” playing music works for the speaker, because it gets him to weep.

Another aspect of Evans’s approach to elegy that I admire is his choice to use short sentences, and how his poems jump-cut from one location to another.  In “Scale,” there are very few sentences that extend beyond two lines, and the sentences are brief and declarative.  I think the short sentences check the potential for romanticizing, even in sentences that could easily veer towards sentimental, “How I missed being in love./ How I wanted to explain: I miss being in love.”  The clipped phrasing seems to mark the speaker’s reluctance to dwell in sadness or self-pity.

While the ability to jump non-linearly from image to image or location to location is a feature of lyric in general, in this case it also seems accurate as a language of grief, since grievers in particular have difficulty sustaining focus and attention (any stillness in the mind invites the re-realization of loss).  In the poem, the speaker’s grief gets displaced into his desire to measure things, and more curiously, in the unfolding drama of his brother-in-law’s family—a story that mirrors his own loss, but only inexactly, so that the speaker seems somehow even more isolated in his experience.

My favorite section of this poem is when Evans writes how he and his nephew “registered online an animatronic vulture/ whose virtual home contained separate rooms/ for each family member.”  First of all, this situation is delightfully strange, and second of all, as an image it accomplishes a lot—commenting on the odd feelings of isolation even within family units, suggesting a kind of entombment, or just pointing out the fact that in the limitless world of virtual reality, the ideal home is a place where everyone has his or her own room.

In fact, the poem’s switches in location build up to an emotional climax near the end of the poem where the speaker goes into his own room, as if this is where he can grieve, when no one’s looking—“I sat in my room listening carefully to music/ I knew would make me weep./ Sleeping pills erased the dark room.”  The poem ends with the brother-in-law, who is sorting through his own estrangement from his family, starting his daily driving routine.  The speaker is dragged into the next day by the sound of his brother-in-law’s sputtering truck, an image that once again obliquely mirrors the poet’s own work of re-starting, of building this heartbreaking poetic series out of the looping, unsolvable experience of loss.

I encourage everyone to pick up the issue and check out the other elegies in this feature!