January 8, 2014

Each poem an elegy


Tennyson's manuscript for In Memoriam, via the Heslam Trust.

Tennyson’s manuscript for In Memoriam (via the Heslam Trust).

On the cusp of the new year, Octopus no. 16 went live, and with it Heather Christle’s “Poem for Bill Cassidy.” Cassidy, as Christle explained in a blog post, was published with her in Octopus no. 6; almost three years ago, he passed away, and this poem is her elegy:

How long do we wait before we say

there’s no reply

I’ve been noticing elegiac poems more and more these days. First, in November, “Tigers” by Melissa Ginsburg, written for the poet Eric Lemke. Then Joshua Poteat’s poem for Jake Adam York:

I do not bring you to the river beneath the river
because time ruins, a heresy.

Soon after, there was the fall issue of Blackbird, with Diane Suess’ “Is there still a Betty in this new life?” and Jeanne Murray Walker’s fistful of poems:

. . . Then I watched death lean

his ladder against your house and
climb through your window with his axe
to unhook the world from
the lovely promontory of your face.

It’s not as if the elegiac poem is new. We have Milton’s “Lycidias,” Shelley’s “Adonais,” Tennyson’s book-length In Memoriam, Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” There’s Sappho in her preemptive elegy for people not yet gone: “someone will remember us / I say / even in another time” (fragment 147, translated by Anne Carson). Jack Gilbert mourned Michiko in The Great Fires. Everything Anne Carson writes seems elegiac—for the husband, the mother, the glass. Many more of my favorite poets, from Ilya Kaminsky to Sara Peters, have continually used poems as remembrance and as letting-go.

Some of these aren’t traditional elegies, and certainly not in the pastoral mode. What is happening now deepens elegiac possibility in our poems and fills it like a bowl. These are specific mournings, sometimes; for people, places, weathers. And yet most poems, we could say, fit the bill. If a poem is a stopped moment, a cross-sectional sort of intensity, we know that what it contains is, or will be, gone. The poem, though, has a way of holding on.

The challenge may be to find a poem that is not an elegy, that doesn’t try to preserve, in its little way, what is. The poems are our hands, our muscle memories, systolic, diastolic.


Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.