Grief, Loss, Death & Dying

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Some Thing BlackReview - Some Thing Black
by Jacques Roubaud, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop
Dalkey Archive, 1999
Review by Frances Gillespie
Jun 30th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 26)

This book is unforgettable for the courage and fortitude of its creator. For it is a meticulous portrayal of his most anguished feelings following the sudden death of his wife including the struggle to find a way, any way, to live without her. Together with a text that is richly layered poetically comes the photographs taken by Alix Cleo Roubaud herself (his wife) that eerily complement the mood of the book.

The poems are divided into nine groups of nine ending with one last expression of grief 'Nothing'. This is followed by the photographs.

The first group of poems details the horror of his discovery of his wife, dead:

Having seen, recognized death..
Blood coagulated at the fingertips like Guiness in a glass.
I couldn't see it as human. "there's blood in any human hand." I understood this proposition very clearly, because I was seeing it confirmed by its negative. (p11)
That early allusion to photography immediately points to a close creative involvement between them. The immediacy, vividness and honesty of this depiction of external reality and internal turmoil is ruthlessly sustained to the final revelations. I therefore found the reading of it excruciatingly painful at times even though I knew the writing was the product of years and I was absorbing raw and brutal emotion as though telescoped.

The next poem describes Cleo:

She had loved life passionately, from a distance. without feeling in or part it. unhappy, she took pictures....of death and nostalgia.
Sheer abyss of love.
Clearly no ordinary gift. to let me have, one Friday at five A.M., the image of her death. (p13)
Roubaud here juxtaposes contradictory ideas: passion and distance, abyss and love, death and gift. This is a device he uses throughout, for example, speaking of his dead wife phoning him and ending that poem, Novel II, with the suggestion that hearing his voice over the phone does not prove he's alive.

The styles used are eminently suitable to the varied content. The poetry is modern free verse with some verging on prose, but for the richness and unusual use of language. At the other end of the continuum is 'In This Tree' with its regular four beats to a line rhythm and traditional repetition. It is clear that the poet chooses his form scrupulously despite the fact that

(In) the near future..I'll shut up again utterly baffled by these poems. (p82)
He notes that he could not write for eighteen months during the time after Cleo's death.

The collection's title signals the importance of light and colour to Roubaud's expression. He reasons

...from now on nothing will be like her.
Everything depends on the point when the unlike appears.
and thence something. but something black.
Something black which closes in. locks shut. pure unaccomplished deposition. (p73-74)
The blue of the sky and the sunshine are often used to accent the apparent normalcy of the everyday in contrast to the cataclysm with which he contends. He refers to
the jet black of early youth
and adulthood's blue turquoise
And the yellow abalone of nothingness which may not be
mentioned or thought
and Resurrection's white shell (p45)
With infinite sadness he says
I do not name you any more but colorless. (p66)
Light is mentioned thus:
The door pushed back the light (p11)
The light rises over my ears (p31)
It is the layered usage of the word black that best illustrates the sophistication of this poet's art. It connotes despair, grief, absence of life of both thought and action and in the end becomes a metaphor for death itself.

There is an unusual mechanism to graphically communicate the effect grief and loss has on both the perception of time and reality. The environment - room in which he sits, the windows he gazes from - remain static while the psychic state of the poet is underlined -

The church, the street, the bay roofs to the left of the church form the background of a picture:.....but I don't look at it. This picture which contains you. (p29-30)

I really can face your's difficult, but I can......
Other traces of you, come through my other senses, are inside me. These I stumble on and choke. (p32)

Hundreds of dark mornings have been my refuge....
The rooms untouched: chairs, walls, shutters, clothes, doors. (p31)

Repetition more familiarly is found in the rhythm of 'in this tree, in this tree (p135)

And in the unexpected humour of the repeated
'I tapped my foot on the grass. twelve pigeons rose three feet in the air, then resettled. (p41)
The imagery is also arresting
'I always say your name...
As if death had but frozen your fingertips, had but thrown a blanket of silence over us had stopped at some door.
And me on the other side, incredulous. (p132)

Contact lens of a full moon out of breath. (p61)

the hand of your watch went on moving. in your loss of time I found all of myself included. (p116)

The unusual use of punctuation - full-stops mid sentence - draws me into the jaggedness of feeling and the disjointedness of thought that traumatic shock engenders. Similarly the grouping of the poems by subject matter, moving from the more concrete to the abstract and singular expression of inner pain, rather than chronologically, helped me to give the experience shape and engage with it more.

Only a cursory examination of the photographs at the end of the text is possible after such harrowing reading. It is true they give the whole narrative an extra dimension, but by the time I'd finished reading the poems and was identifying so much with Jacques' pain, to meet Cleo's confirmation of his perception was unbearable!

This is an astonishing work of art. Even in translation the language has a clarity, a ring of truth that is remarkable. Completely devoid of sentimentality it is a dissection of irrevocable heartbreak using all poetic devices to hand. It is not for the faint-hearted, however, for such a poetic gift is a double edged sword: those who read are irresistably drawn into the poet's experience. Here, then, the prospective reader must live through or relive the sudden loss of one who is their most loved.

© Frances Gillespie 2001

Frances Gillespie describes herself as follows:

I am a mental health consumer of forty years standing. My family is steeped in this experience as we have traced it through four generations I therefore have also a personal understanding of caring in this difficult area. In the last five years I have moved from hiding under the blankets to giving evidence to an enquiry into the human rights of the mentally ill in Australia to spearheading an understanding of the mental health consumer as a resource in our community in Hobart, Tasmania. With the support of likeminded people a system of paid consumer consultants arose from this activism. I am at present on leave from studying for a research Masters in Medicine that centres on an analysis of the development of mental health consumerism in Tasmania. I believe that it is necessary to set aside anger generated from personal experience in this area in order to achieve lasting solutions. Thus I also work as a consumer advocate.


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