This is a very special book. I found it like an unexpected treasure chest full of riches of the non-material kind. Poems are one of the few things left in postmodern life which transcend commodification, all the more powerful in this case as the poems and elegies herein are concerned with death and dying. Dying is an aspect of living of course, which no amount of material wealth can prevent from eventually happening. As the saying goes, "There are no pockets in a shroud".
This is not the sort of book one reads all at once perhaps, but one which I'm sure will rest for periods on the bookshelf until a "losing" occurs. Then somewhere in between its covers you will find an aid to help your grieving process.
Kevin Young has done an excellent job of producing this anthology of poems, many of them elegies. In his own words, " It is out of such a need, [to write an elegy] and for its consolation, that I have gathered the poems in this anthology: to reveal the many ways poets seek to find words and form to contain loss; and to fulfil the reader's need for comfort and companionship in the words of another" (p. xv) This book appears to be unique in its specific collection of elegies.
Clearly Young had to make some hard editorial decisions, mainly due to the limitations of a book's size, as it is it weighs in at just over three hundred pages. And further, because he wanted the poems to be representative of modern and contemporary poets. There are a few 19th century works included such as those of Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins because Young found these to be "remarkably modern" despite the period in which they were written. The poets represented come from far and wide around the planet, and together with their different poetic "forms" make up a formidable collection. Even some of my own favourite poets are represented -- Charles Simic, Rumi, Seamus Heaney, Les Murray and Dylan Thomas.
After Young's beautifully written and moving Introduction (I wish this had been a little longer), the book is divided into six general sections, followed by a very useful Index by Subject.
1 -- Reckoning deals with the immediate reactions to death. "Often the voice is imperative, still reeling, arguing, and even denying as it takes comfort where it can." (p. xix)
2 -- Regret looks at where wishes meet memories ... if only I'd forgiven her before she died.
3 -- Remembrance is often a case of questioning as well as comfort. "That is, grief spawns memories of the departed, which in turn, can spawn more grief - but just as often these memories are a balm to mourners..." (p. xx)
4 -- Ritual poems cover both the public and private rites of mourning. "Remembrance and the rituals of mourning sustain us individually even as they bring us together." (p. xx)
5 -- Recovery as the title suggests presents poems which try to move on from the loss. Moving on is not necessarily inevitable and may happen quickly for some but others simply never get over the loss.
6 -- Redemption "One modern aspect of elegy is the way in which death seems our one certainty, and yet one thing we cannot easily discuss" (p. xxiii) The poems in this section seek to remedy this. An example, the first stanza of In the City of Light by Larry Levis,
The last thing my father did for me
Was map a way: he died, & so
Made death possible. If he could do it, I
Will also, someday, be so honored. (p. 256)
I think this book will appeal to a large audience, even those who do not normally read poetry may find this book highly relevant and helpful in their lives. Very few adults have the luxury of not having lost someone close to them whether it be friends, colleagues or family.
This book is not a depressing, melancholy affair by any means. Some who live their lives in denial of mortality may find it uncomfortable but I do not think depressing. As the subtitle Poems of Grief and Healing suggests, these elegies bring about a healing from which we emerge stronger individuals. There are too many brilliant poems to quote so I'll leave you with Kevin Young's own words which sum up this wonderful book succinctly. "Elegies are just as often for the living, remember. And while these poems chronicle loss and its rituals, elegies also celebrate life -- and ask us to care for ours, if only by honoring others. And in that way, "death will have no dominion." (p. xxiv)
© 2010 Rob Harle
Rob Harle is an artist and writer, especially concerned with the nature of consciousness and high-body technologies. His current work explores the nature of the transition from human to posthuman, a phenomenon he calls the technoMetamorphosis of humanity. He has academic training in philosophy of mind, comparative religious studies, art and psychotherapy. Rob is an active member of the Leonardo Review Panel. For full biography and examples of art and writing work please visit his web site: http://www.robharle.com