Incalculable Loss

How writing can help make sense of grief

Christopher Spaide
New York Times Cover reading "US Deaths near 100,000, an incalculable loss

Once you started mourning this past year, how would you know where to stop? In a period that saw the COVID-­19 pandemic and its attendant economic crisis, new waves of protests against police brutality, and even more foreboding news about our climate, collective loss was never less than front-­page news. We tracked it day by day, district by district, as dutifully as the weather. Everyone I know had something to grieve—lost time and lost jobs and lost housing, lost ways of living, lost lives—but even the most sheltered and self-­centered among us had to know that our specific loss was nothing special, simply one name or statistic among thousands. To quote the New York Times headline for May 24—the approximate day that COVID-­19 deaths in the United States reached one hundred thousand—our national devastation amounted to “AN INCALCULABLE LOSS.” A loss not only unforeseeable or unimaginable but, even with all the technologies available to us, impossible to calculate to any fullness. Loss, mind-­numbing in its magnitude. Even the newspapers knew.

In literary journals and anthologies, poets are making their first attempts at writing something equal to the collective grief that we have so far addressed only obliquely in public life and in literature. To calculate, etymologically speaking, is to count with a calculus or pebble, a tangible token—will our poetry ever find a way to grasp the sum of our recent losses? The poems that ask and answer that question will append another chapter to the millennia-­long history of the elegy, a genre as old as mourning itself and unlikely to taper off soon; as Peter Sacks tactfully reminds us, “The occasion for elegy will not disappear.” But the genre has never stood still, and as long as our exposure to and ideas about death keep changing, our elegies will too.

Which is why there was something unexpectedly timely about the recent publication of three works of mourning, each years in the making: Victoria Chang’s Obit, Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s Seeing the Body, and Joyelle McSweeney’s Toxicon and Arachne. Faced with a death in the family, each of these three poets swiftly situates their personal loss within tragic histories, transnational networks, and analogous devastations to our institutions and environments. Whether swerving away from elegy’s decorum and consolation into the narrow confines of the “obit,” preserving them in unruly, mixed-­media digressions amid vacated landscapes, or charting a new terrain on which life and death coexist in neighborly proximity, all three books rest on the prescient conviction that nobody and nothing can be mourned in isolation—a premise that seems especially crucial now, as we are training ourselves to see how every individual, even the most isolated, fits within the vast, concentric frames of the social, the national, and the global.

there are sixty-­some
obituaries in Victoria Chang’s Obit, but only one for the loss that inspired the book: “My Mother—died unpeacefully on August 3, 2015 in her room at Walnut Village Assisted Living in Anaheim, California of pulmonary fibrosis.” The other obits announce losses you could anticipate interspersed with losses you’ve never prepared for: clothes, affection, caretakers, privacy, yesterday, the future, Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer, tears, bees, similes, and “My Father’s Frontal Lobe,” which “died unpeacefully of a stroke.” Certain irreplaceable faculties—language, memory, appetite—die repeatedly, receiving new obits each time. Conventionally, elegies single out their subjects, eulogizing or even deifying the dead, while offering consolations and continuities for the living. In an about-­face from convention, Chang’s Obit sees nothing special in its founding loss, accepting as its premise that every timestampable person, place, and thing is vanishing or already gone. Why write about one loss, Obit wonders, when loss in all its guises is always everywhere to be found?

At first, Chang aimed to write nothing about her mother’s death, “refusing to write elegies,” as her book jacket explains, “for fear of cliché.” One day, tuning into NPR, she became captivated by a discussion of Obit, a 2016 documentary about obituary writers at The New York Times. What captured her attention was not the film but its title: “Just that really long ‘O,’” she remembers in an interview. “And when you say the O, your mouth stays open and then the T is really hard, and there’s that finality of the T, which almost feels like a door shutting, like death.” Until Chang helped me, I had never noticed the melodiousness of the word “elegy”—with its soft “g,” it’s more elegant than “elegance” itself. In contrast, the obit, Chang’s happened-­upon anti-­elegy, promises curtness and unmusical “finality,” trading in flat fact instead of ceremonious rhythms. Compressed into a thin-­margined newspaper column, an obit is the most prosaic and businesslike form we’ve devised to acknowledge death. Maybe poetry makes nothing happen, as W. H. Auden claims in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” But you can make a living writing obits.

An elegy like Auden’s makes occasions, both out of the death it memorializes (“The day of his death was a dark cold day”) and out of its own verbal rites (“Earth, receive an honoured guest; / William Yeats is laid to rest”). Obits, conversely, circulate briskly, in journalistic time. They are compact enough to be read on the fly, amid errands, doctor’s visits, and (as one obit relates) “pants-­shopping” with your father. Their brevity becomes, in Chang’s hands, a blunt-­force weapon of bad-­news delivery. Her briefest obit, a brutal dispatch on optimism, begins:

Optimism—died on August 3, 2015, a slow death into a pavement. At what point does a raindrop accept its falling? The moment the cloud begins to buckle under it or the moment the ground pierces it and breaks its shape? In December, my mother had her helper prepare a Chinese hot-­pot feast. My mother said it would probably be her last Christmas. I laughed at her. She yelled at my father all night. I put a fish ball in my mouth.

After a no-­nonsense lede—name of deceased, em-­dash, time and cause of death—this obit promptly veers into memory, free association, and rhetorical questions, equal parts physics problem and Zen koan. Chang’s abstraction aims at self-­distraction; dancing around that “slow death,” she speaks in terms of rainfall, clouds, and geometric shapes instead of their tragic equivalents—decline, tear-­clouded eyes, buckling bodies. Everything is registered with a journalistic chill, even as Chang turns to domestic anecdote and unfactcheckable bodily sensations: “My optimism covered the whole ball as if the fish had never died, had never been gutted and rolled into a humiliating shape. To acknowledge death is to acknowledge that we must take another shape.” Here and elsewhere, Chang ends her obit with an aphorism, distilling its multi­variable quandary into a taut equation. But Chang knows her certainties arrive too late to console. Nothing can rescind that last Christmas, its misplaced laughter and lingering humiliations; no epiphany will prevent another obit from appearing once you turn the page.

Like Chang’s previous works The Boss (2013) and Barbie Chang (2017)—two book-­length sequences centered on a corporate supervillain and a totem of suburban femininity—Obit records the invention and exhaustion of a homespun genre. In this freewheeling process, anything goes. That includes turning the genre back on its creator—nobody in Obit receives more obits than Chang’s previous selves. These self-­obits, Chang’s concentrated thought experiments in giving up and opening outward, may be her most therapeutic: “Victoria Chang—died on August 3, 2015, the one who never used to weep when other people’s parents died. Now I ask questions, I bring glasses. I shake the trees in my dreams so I can tremble with others tomorrow.”

To read obits in twos and threes is to see death’s inevitability flipped into a generative constraint, a font of macabre invention. To read Obit entire is to undergo grief’s full endurance test—to be weighed down incrementally, wearied physically, by every commemorated loss and to dread all the losses yet to come. Roughly half of the obits focus on Chang’s father, still living, who lost the ability to speak due to a stroke. His loosening grip on language—along with the larger worry it represents for Chang, that trusted channels of communication might suddenly and entirely break down—leads her to write even more urgently against the clock. Her present-­tense obits hurtle forward with an improvisatory, no-­takebacks velocity, never squandering an opportunity to phrase everything just right: “The way grief needs oxygen. The way every once in a while, it catches the light and starts smoking. The way my grief will die with me. The way it will cleave and grow like antlers.”

To give catastrophe a shape, Chang devises a form as reliable as each day’s obit section, a new ending on every page. But how does a book like Obit end for good? Chang’s way out is writing toward some less conclusion-­obsessed (but still emotionally credible) form. Halfway through Obit, Chang sets aside her titular form for a mosaic of eighteen shattered sonnets, and throughout her book’s graveyard of rectangular prose poems she strews a dozen pages of tanka, the five-­line Japanese verse-­form. Where the obits take last looks at her parents, Chang’s tanka face the generation after her. “My children, children,” she writes in the book’s closing lines,

this poem will not end because
I am trying to
end this poem with hope hope hope,
see how the mouth stays open?

Maybe, in this tanka, you can half-­hear “obit,” that bitten-­off moan, echoed but transformed into “open.” Maybe trying to end with “hope hope hope” is the most optimistic this grim, unrelenting book can become. At the very least, with these chanted vowels, their snippet-­long return to song, and that final question extended into the future, Chang lands on a poetry that refuses to fast-­forward to the fatal end, that lingers in the aspirational moment, staying open.

what can a grieving poet
do when loss cleaves their sense of time in two, leaving an irretrievable before, an incoherent after? And how should a contemporary Black poet approach the elegy and its ceremonial consolations? Traditionally, the elegy reassures the living by harmonizing individual deaths to natural cycles. But at what point does the genre’s dignifying acceptance of death start to imply acquiescence, personal and political, to an unjust status quo? In Seeing the Body, the fifth collection by the poet and photographer Rachel Eliza Griffiths, death’s aftershocks rattle poem after poem, even line after line. The book’s title poem announces two unsurpassable ruptures, an exhalation apart: a mother’s death and a voice breaking into silence.

She died & I—
In the spring of her blood, I remember
my mother’s first injury. Surprise of unborn
petals curling red, then dark around her wrist.
Some fruit she cut, some onion, some
body with skin & sharp seeds. She fed me.
She lived Us & I—
She held We & I—

“She died & I—.” No hesitation, no embellishment. Simply loss laid on the line, this book’s very first. With her mother’s death, Griffiths’s sense of history is split; hereafter, every spring will be stained by “the spring of her blood” and, before that, the painterly symptoms of her “first injury.” The line-­ending dashes recall Emily Dickinson’s, those bare markings used to sever sounds and suture silences. But no speech follows Griffiths’s insistently halted “I”— here, less a centered pronoun than an involuntary cry of pain. For Griffiths, “She” was a lifelong tutor in primordial verbs: cutting and feeding, living and holding. Separate that elemental “Us” of mother and daughter, and what can an “I” possibly say next?

In Seeing the Body, a poet rarely at a loss for words—whose earlier poems, even in mourning, swelled with sensorial splendor and metaphorical muchness—confronts a loss that she finds, at last, unspeakable. That loss proves particularly unsettling for a poet as extroverted as Griffiths, who approaches poetry almost as a team sport, each player indispensably assisted by friends, fellow poets, and literary ancestors. Mule & Pear (2011), a collection of homages to those ancestors, is curriculum-­deep and fanfic-­ardent, centering and repaying the pathbreaking Black women before her. Damage inflicted on Griffiths’s communities—deaths in the family, victims of school shootings and child abuse, Black men brutalized by the state—tugged her next collection, Lighting the Shadow (2015), toward elegy. But Griffiths never gave herself entirely to the genre. She counterweights an “Elegy” for Black boys with an infuriated “Anti Elegy”; and in “July 22, 2012” (the day of her grandmother’s death), she crafts an incantation for denial: “Refuse to feed at the throat of elegy. / I’m too obedient. Let her go, my mother says at the foot of the body. / I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.”

Now, in Seeing the Body, Griffiths has no choice but to confront loss directly. Letting her mother go necessitates the severest stylistic swerve of her career; tearing up plenitude by the roots, her latest poems find aesthetic virtues in shagginess, irrepressibility, lopsidedness, a kneejerk recalcitrance against pat truths and neat fits. If one meaning of “seeing the body” is viewing the dead, another is Griffiths’s endeavor to record, at the highest resolution, an ailing body amid its deteriorations. Wandering hospital hallways, Griffiths sees bodies reduced to biological processes, all distinguishing features eroded away: “Bodies, at unrest. Bodies / snoring, groaning, farting, cursing, screaming / & sighing in yellow tunnels.” When Griffiths leaves those “vomit-­hued walls” for wells of memory and imagination, abjection follows. Visualizing her mother’s birth, Griffiths sees no sepia-­toned montages, only “Shit / & music mucus wiped away / from her small brown face.”

“Seeing the body” becomes literal in the book’s centerpiece, “daughter: lyric: landscape,” a portfolio of black-­and-­white photographs depicting Griffiths, always alone, in desolate exteriors and funereal interiors. In one oceanside portrait, she opts for total immersion, walking into the water in parallel with a deserted pier. Another captures a living room, properly vacuumed. No one’s home—until you spot Griffiths’s legs jutting out from behind a loveseat like a murder victim’s. “I am looking at a woman whose spirit is both emaciated and exhilarated in the face of monumental loss,” she explains of these self-­portraits, if the designation “self-­portraits” even applies to works whose subject appears only in trace amounts, rarely centered in the frame.

In both its media, Seeing the Body looks to elemental origins and finds only absences. To surmount the speechless grief of her title poem, Griffiths digs down in search of linguistic roots and foundational memories. Many poems take as their titles a single word that loss has evacuated of solid, trusty meaning: “Myth,” “Belief,” “Chronology.” A parallel series, building titles on the formula “Good [Noun],” traces goodness to a mother remembered through moments at once quotidian and unrepeatable. “She liked sweet watermelon / in summer,” “Good Food” recalls. “Jesus, the way she would say Sweet as though it was her first slice ever. I would stand / nearby, half-­hiding, just to hear her say it / softly to herself.” Mourning a mother, these digressive memorials imply, is an immense feat of biography that spirals into an even vaster inquiry into first causes and precedents and everything that contrived to make you “you.” In retrospect, Griffiths’s mother was not only a model for radical values but a proto-­poet, flaunting an unmistakable voice: “At night she did what she wanted. Cursed / so sublimely I learned to hear it as poetry / (unless I was the beloved of her ode).”

Throughout Seeing the Body, life goes rudely, insensibly on. Death goes on too, compounding grief on grief, entwining private sorrow and public commemoration. It’s a testament to both Griffiths’s versatility and her fidelity to grief’s prismatic range that this book oscillates from elegies to love poems, landscapes, and even a wardrobe-­malfunction farce set at Maya Angelou’s funeral. Only after being winded by grief then ballooning with inspiration can the book end with “Good Death,” a hairpin turn toward grace. Griffiths’s closing litany enumerates best-­case scenarios for one’s worst nightmare: a good death, were it possible, would consist “Of the pronunciation of sorrow, forever mine, each astonishing summer”; “Of the poems I’ve been trying to write. Die, I say. / Go elsewhere for songs”; “Of what I will never remember. There is no end of remembering.” If there’s any resolution here, it is in Griffiths’s plain statement of her book’s animating paradoxes—presences mushrooming from absences, poems inspired by tuneless heartaches, the lifelong work of mourning. The strangest paradox of all, as her last lines recognize, is that a good death can unburden. Just like, of all things, a good birth: “Now I walk into the sea with my jewel of anguish / & shake my mothers, these shining human flowers, / from my bald, newborn skull.”

equally timely
as Griffiths’s poems of catastrophic rupture but nearly antithetical in approach, Joyelle McSweeney’s recent elegies inhabit contaminated ecosystems, corrupted pastorals, and trauma-­haunted houses, providing abundant evidence that wherever life is, death is too. Their coexistence is at the core of McSweeney’s two-­collections-­in-­one book, Toxicon and Arachne, whose baffling title is a practice test in decoding her characteristically staticky logic. Google “toxicon,” and you’ll scroll by a toxinology journal, a biotech testing firm, and an Australian groove-­metal band before uncovering the Greek root of “toxin”: toxikón, poison for arrowpoints. Arachne, the namesake of arachnids everywhere, was the shepherd’s daughter who out-­wove Athena and, as punishment, was metamorphosed into a spider, nature’s immaculate textile-­maker. For all these overtones, the simplest translation of Toxicon and Arachne is a primal pairing: mother and daughter. Toxicon, a hundred-­page journal of a personal plague, follows McSweeney’s pregnancy with her third child, the arrow gestating in her side. In an introductory sonnet McSweeney styles herself a “Detonator,” a timebomb set to three trimesters; a concluding sonnet renames her a “Terminator,” a cyborg at full term. The thirteen poems of Arachne—named in memory of that daughter, who died after an “odd allocation of thirteen days”—recount her brief life and a death so unaccountably sudden as to appear a cosmic curse. “Born third and on such an odd date,” Arachne “was unlucky, the unluckiest of them all.” The two collections fuse as in an ionic bond, a crystalline lattice where positivity and negativity, evenly matched, fix one another in place.

At least since 2012’s Percussion Grenade, McSweeney has found a counterintuitive lyricality in lethality. (That book’s punning title reconceived the flashbang as a found instrument, detonating language to keep a beat.) Her new work fuses “properties toxic and lyric / to enter and to permeate / to dissolve and to encrypt.” Contrary to Auden, who mused that poetry’s “ulterior purpose” might be “by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate,” McSweeney seeks truths that are unsayable without an idiolect that is both charmed and impure, beset with occult intrusions and linguistic pathogens, like typos and neologisms, infecting the soft tissue of her verse. The theory for this practice can be found in her study of cross-­contaminated environments, The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults (2014). “I give the name ‘necropastoral,’” she writes, “to the manifestation of the infectiousness, anxiety, and contagion occultly present in the hygienic borders of the classical pastoral.” Throughout The Necropastoral, McSweeney fondly plays on Death’s horror-­movie threat, et in arcadia ego, “I am also in Arcadia.” Even in sanitized spaces—Arcadia’s secluded hills, a newly furnished nursery—Death is calling, and he’s inside the house.

Anarchic, self-­contradictory, gunkily overflowing, the necropastoral is a perfect venue for McSweeney’s punk contrarianism and buzzy dissonances. Toxicon, her “pregnancy” collection, finds maternal expectancy thriving in a world dead-­set on eradicating it, stocked with a “rude, encamera’d / predator drone” and “hurlitzers, howitzers, / howler monkeys on the lam from the lab.” “I’m a threat to life,” McSweeney crows, but also “a violent butter” of churned-­up potential. No substance is solid or stable; everything sloshes like bodily fluid, speech included: “epithelial cells / decode a secret message received / in mother’s milk, my burnt tongue / sloughs white pus.” Whether poured into stanzas or dribbled down the page, Toxicon’s “inklings” mutate at the unreal pace of time-­lapse footage, each line more intoxicated than the last:

I wanted to unlock my phone.
I wanted to unlock the geode. I wanted to press it to my skull. I wanted to go
right through the temple. Bedazzle my occipital.
Be dazzled like a jeweled vagina or an improved corpse.

Put through biology’s costume changes, donning a “Sleep Mask” then a “Rat Mask,” McSweeney’s “I” can appear gaudily theatrical. Elsewhere she’s a souped-­up animatronic, superhumanly capable: “Prior to battle mode, I go into my warp spasm. / My stiff coif lifts with grease / I go into bunker mode. I go into beaver batallion.”

One intentionally-­left-­blank page separates Toxicon from Arachne. It’s all that stands for a catastrophe that, this early in the sequence, is inconceivable, therefore indescribable, therefore impossible to memorialize. Appalled by the pressure to compose an “appropriate” elegy for her newborn—what would that look like?—Arachne opens with a mirthless cackle, a pastiche titled “The Wonderful Year 2018 (A True Accounting).” McSweeney’s source is Thomas Dekker’s account of 1603, the wonderful year of Queen Elizabeth’s death:

If you read you may happilie laugh; tis my desire that you should

because mirth is both Physicall and wholsome against the Plague, with which
sicknes (to tell truth) this book is (though not sorely) yet somewhat infected

I know of nothing, from Dekker’s century or ours, quite like the poems that follow. They are extreme close-­ups of privacies that rarely enter books, let alone pass one’s internal censors. Freely shapeshifting (from anvils of prose to iv drips of one-­word lines), these poems can do nothing about their nightmarish certainty that the closest thing to existence is nonexistence and any catastrophe will bridge that gap. McSweeney, “demented with grief,” finds death everywhere, from settings contagious with trauma—the neonatal ICU, a “baby-­morgue,” a riverside graveyard whose soil “is flooding and black mudding”—to an American vernacular armed with diction like “endzone” and “killer app.” If death terrorizes, life is worse, taunting the bereft by teeming incessantly around them: “drain these pools, this spawning ground / for mites, this river of eggs.” Shouldn’t Toxicon have led to a family saga, a fuller cast? Instead, as McSweeney laments in “The History Plays,” there’s only one surviving actor, performing every role: “Like a shitty boy-­prince, I duck the rumors of revolt. I myself am rumor. I myself revolt.”

Routinely, McSweeney’s reviewers mention her “excess”—excess of styles and substances, abject fluids and gloppy signifiers, taboos broken and genres dismantled. Yet anything but excess, McSweeney suggests, would seem policed or hemmed-­in. “Let beauty be convulsive,” she prays, “or not at all.” Then again, there’s nothing excessive about Arachne’s most astonishing quality, the level, doting voice with which McSweeney addresses her dead daughter, a skin-­close intimacy that can materialize a ghostly “you” through language alone. She waits until her last poem to admit the worst to Arachne: “I’ll say something so bad you’ll know I mean it: // The day you were born / was the worst day of my life // Don’t hold it against me babe.” Long after first reading these devastated yet virtuosic poems, after dwelling on McSweeney’s plainspoken acknowledgments (“She is grateful to and for Arachne”), I can’t shake the feeling that she has plenty left to say. Enough to fill volumes, take lifetimes. But—to echo W. S. Merwin’s one-­line “Elegy”—who would she tell it to?

Toxicon and Arachne was published in April 2020, a month and a day after Indiana, where McSweeney lives, confirmed its first case of COVID-­19. Professionals in poetry often become amateurs in prophecy, and McSweeney has always boasted an unnervingly high batting average, connecting even with the wildest pitches. This latest book carries her most disquieting predictions yet. Speculating that “this endtime’s gonna last awhile,” hinging on a crown (or corona) of sonnets inspired by John Keats’s death from tuberculosis, Toxicon and Arachne is a pandemic book that, flukily enough, was finalized months beforehand. The same might be said about both Obit and Seeing the Body. No one would mistake any of these books for any other, but all three fulfill the same unasked-­for double duty: even while memorializing losses close at hand, they anticipate today’s waves of bereavement and disenchantment uncannily well, as though they’ve had years to practice. Inadvertently, by considering not only the personal scale of loss but its incalculable sprawl, Chang, Griffiths, and Sweeney have composed elegies and anti-­elegies that resonate sympathetically with the losses wrought by the ongoing pandemic. Even as they enshrine familiar losses, these open-­ended poems make space for yet-­to-­be-­imagined calamities, for griefs we have nowhere else to place. How much space exactly? There’s no calculating that either.

Christopher Spaide is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. His essays, reviews, and poems have appeared in Contemporary Literature, Harvard Review, Poetry, and elsewhere.
Originally published:
May 19, 2021


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