1894 Notes on grief
The All + Flesh
By Brandi Bird
Toronto: House of Anansi, 2023
$16.99 / 9781487011826
Reviewed by Linda Rogers
We are all changed. Plague and pestilence have left many of us in a state of grief, our innocence lost, experience teaching us the perils of hubris. As usual, prayer translates to poetry as our interlocutors sort it out.
West Coast resident Brandi Bird, pronoun their, self-describes as Indiqueer, and this is their debut collection, the ambiguous show word “debut” that evokes the naissance of Indigenous Renaissance and suggests the shadow of debuts past, colonial virgins bowing to the Queen, er King if it still happens.
There is that other word “colonial” that keeps recurring in contemporary writing, so much that it is numbing, the phrase we know, we know becoming a stutter deprived of remorse. But Bird has not set out to wear us out. Their agenda is to peel back their injured skin and reveal the heart within, to heal in outward circles, themself first, then us, our common mother wound. As Bird writes, “I eat my own sadness / & my mother sleeps / in the next room.”
If we are to believe the patriarchal narrative, the first mother betrayed us and that is the pattern. Yet still, there is life and love woven into the Eve blanket.
No one escapes the fatal injury and there can be no sadness only laughter. Sinead O’Connor explained the humour of the oppressed when she noted that, unlike (ugly) Americans, British and Irish people bypass anger to access mirth. Humour is also the survival tool of the descendants of the first inhabitants of Turtle Island. Where Bird could rage against the intergenerational trauma that is the legacy of The Indian Act in Canada, instead they rely on the ironic twists that reduce their narratives to parable, no words wasted. Laughter does not kill cruelty but it does ameliorate pain.
There are different anodynes, some of them dangerous, as Bird is aware when they write of their brother: “I ghost through life & he phantoms. / He sinks into smoke.”
A poet reminded us there are many ways of looking at blackbirds, at Crow funerals and the ritual dances of love and loss. Several writers give us different perspectives: some advice, some poetry, all wisdom, follows. Whether death or the failure of love, grief is a pattern as we deny and embrace different routes to the golden door, where everyone meets in gratitude, or not: “to die is so romantic / but to live / after death / is so dull.”
In this world, the poet has experienced every kind of pain, but this is the life they accept, one filled with sorrow for which smoke is remedy, their poems smudging the imperfections that irritate, sand in their oyster. Smoke and pearls are what Bird offers, healing as they translate and embody the wisdom of their ancestors:
until I die & then
there is other
This is Bird’s gospel, the story of parents held ransom by genocide, the story of children who eat their own flesh, and the mission of storytellers, a tradition that kept culture alive even during the most heinous assaults from the church they evoke in irony as they transform prayer into poetry—
This is the narrative. This is the trajectory
And life, as it happens as she finds herself in the naming, which is medicine.
O Lord God, how many shadows
can I name in a dark room?
Bird’s authenticity invites us to walk with them across a field that is “…fenceless & upside down & deep with black soil where we bury ash that smells like the future, ash that smells like the past.” It is medicine, Bird promises, that will make us real again.
Love Notes to Grievers: Tending to Grief After Loss
By Angela E. Morris
Charlottetown, PEI: Pownal Street Press, 2023
$24.95 / 978177812458
While we turn from advice given by the patriarchy on every human issue from love to loss, we halt at the consonants, walls of gospel and shibboleth, seeking new strategies and new spirit guides to help us navigate the human race course.
Southern Vancouver Island writer Angela Morris, her experiences fresh, offers contemporary consolation, beyond the precepts of superstition and religion, the first of which is confrontation. We cannot ghost bereavement the way we bury friendship in the age of erasure, where invisibility can be a key marked “delete”:
Your body knows how to respond to loss. It’s a biological
reflex to attach to someone now gone. The attachment never
severs, so why pretend it does?
We are more complicated than that, even as we renounce the human properties that are making us kin with AI, the soulless entities that write ad copy and song lyrics, even political speech. Morris’ book, advice mixed with poetry, is permission to accept and heal by transforming loss.
If AI is the new church. then nothing exists to grieve, and that is the end of humanity as we know it. Enter Barbie, the film that promised little but gave us everything. We are real. We feel, are not yet insensate. For now, having endured the phenomenon called detachment, we must attach to the journey and the comfort of memory. Grief is a road we all travel. Perhaps the first time it is a pet or a beloved grandparent, then maybe a schoolmate stolen by accident or illness. That loneliness also translates to lost friendship or failed romance, the ghosting that has become too familiar in our constantly flexing transactional culture. Morris notes:
We live in a society that enables you to bypass your pain
and clutch at the denial of death until it is on your front
doorstep. Although it is a common thread amongst us, it
is still a disservice—to be sheltered from the inevitable.
In a society that encourages people to
pretend, grief is a rebellious act.
There are so many euphemisms for death, from “passed on” to “went to spirit,” and most of them are active descriptions of a passive moment, when life as we knew it stops. We need to acknowledge that moment, Morris writes, to stare at the void before we step into a future landscape dominated by an erased presence:
The clearer you become
About what hurts
The less you betray yourself.
This book is not meant to erase loss. It is a map. All of us are slowly changing shape as we approach the inevitable. When we know how to walk with that transformation in joy, through all the deaths large and small, from the wilting flower to the loved human leaving, we will have prepared ourselves for the moment that can be beautiful.
Those who report on a near-death experience can witness the possibility that dying is easier than grieving. Dying is anecdotally quite lovely once we get past the consciousness of pain. It is those who are left in loneliness who need the comfort and rituals of grief.
Angela Morris has found herself on the threshold more than once, and this book serves to tell us how she returned her human shell to life beyond mourning. In it, she describes behaviour that hurts and the deniers who ignore or embellish grief with their own silent narratives and shallow equivalencies.
Never pretending this is a recipe for all, medicine for every aspect of loss, Morris tells her own story in interesting ways, alternating between almost poetry, bare lines with ample space for lamentation and thought, and prose that cleanly informs and advises, her best coming last, as she accepts entitlement:
You can’t bury grief. It asks you to soften and to listen.
It only gets louder until you do.
We Were Hateful People
By Michael G. Khmelnitsky
Nanaimo, BC: JLRB Press, 2023
$20.00 / 9781738894901
There are many routes to the firmament—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, song, dance, and every collateral revelation. Michael Khmelnitsky is a polymath with a fragile mind that he wagers in every phenomenal encounter, approaching the question of life on Earth with courage, even recklessness as he risks the epiphanies he generously shares.
A Russian Jew in early middle age, time enough to have experienced love and loss in global terms, and having landed for now on Vancouver Island, he empties the pockets in his many coloured dress, rolling out stones that have gathered verse that is as beautiful as it is terrifying.
Khmelnitsky’s model is Vancouver poet Stanley Cooperman, who took his life after a dance with his transformative muse. Like Cooperman, this poet refuses edges, linear definition. He is, perhaps, a husband, maybe a lover; a sensualist of the mind, his own performative brain is bothered by the existence of boundaries that bereave. He is funny. He is furious. He’s hungry for comfort and pain, all of it contained in the mobile packages we call poems:
between the donkeys and now
i titrate my feeling
I pray for wind
I reach for my comma toes
All poetry is about loss. Even birth itself is loss, “the opening of unforgiving earth,” first separation followed by broken dreams, broken friendships, broken promises and broken marriages—“what does the grass tell him.”
If we follow Angela Morris’s advice to confront pain, then poetry is a logical next step in the equation that articulates grief: love equals loss. Even as we observe heaven in a wildflower, death is implicit in its ephemeral radiance. In loss, energy is expended, then shared. “Soul come back,” the south oceanic behest for sneezing, resonates. There is no life after death if the gift of memory is denied. For some, action is sex, or gardening, or feeding the hungry. For a poet, it is rearranging words in surprising patterns, affirmation of life and love as ghosts sneak up on us, the borrowing manifested in beauty:
i never had her
though she claimed
to be possessed
but no i’d borrowed
her from others
This poet is a reverential reader and shameless borrower, and his references to others are homage: to W.C. Williams, to T.S. Eliot, to Stanley Cooperman and Alan Ginsberg, even to designer Kate Spade, she of the purses that are themselves little metaphors describing the secret lives of women.
There is little punctuation in these cantos, no full stops when life flows from one entity into another (and that includes gender fluidity and every interstitial relationship). We are one and there should be no boundaries, Khmelnitsky suggests, only kindness, empathy, the connective tissue we paint with words, scents, music and colour.
In the end we are not imitators but transformers, ourselves the marvellous synchronization of holy energy, postprandial parades, and the bravest among us say “watch me burn.”
The Wager, A Poem in Three Cantos
By Jimy Dawn
Gabriola, BC: Night Forest Press, 2023
$20 / 9781999147433
Poetry After the Atomic Bomb
By Hideko Kono (edited by Yumi Kona; translation by Yumie Kono and Ariel O’Sullivan)
Japan: Mokusheisha Press, 2023
9784896180718 / $30.00
The heart has its reasons and the dialogue described by seventeenth century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal engages the spirit of contemporary poet Jimy Dawn, who has every reason to question the relative validity of science and religion, the dual engines of enlightenment in this century of ultimate chaos, post-Biblical floods, and fires.
If Dawn’s roll of the dice, like Pascal’s, is an unchained melody, perhaps empirical evidence for a deity, one Creator of the universe and everything in it, divine intelligence, then, in the post Christian age, what precepts must we follow to avoid denial and eternal damnation?
Or have we already gambled on that dismal conclusion?
The bet is absolute faith or doubt and what is the cost of that? For a writer like Victoria’s Dawn, the question is complicated by grief. How could a wise and benevolent God allow the suffering of little children, the loss of a child? How can he go forward without faith? How does a parent with a shattered heart wager on the existence of a God alleged to be merciful?
This is a daisy situation, the “He loves me, He loves me not” dilemma. Believe and keep the hand on the plow that follows a predetermined route across the land, a life, or free-fall in skepticism, with the wisdom of stars in constellations that take the shape of our ancestors to guide us and maybe slide into perdition?
The poet’s spirit guide, Pascal, is the mathematician and theologian who engages him in conversation about a random universe and the futility of grief. If life is a river of light, do we wager with alchemy or do we just hop on for the ride, dropping our tears on sacred compost, our stories transforming into nourishment? So many questions.
Dawn considers the phenomenal world, the mitochondrial earth blanket and the leap of faith that accepts the invisible divine, echoes of pre-Christian philosophical debate “Moisten the ground and know the mud of our lives / is ripe with undeniable promise.”
Dawn is a lyricist and artist who understands the fugitive properties of the phenomenal world. Life is transformative and death is the catalyst. Like the God no one can describe, he has lost a child and Jesus is a potential chariot to ride through the unkind permutations of time on Earth, as the spirit endures to guide him to a truth that transcends words—“Words cannot say what the body really wants to do.”
Written in three cantos based on Pascal’s wager, “The Party,” “The Lone Star,” and “The Retreat,” the long poem is an argument for the wager, the consequences of which are relevant to the compost, but not necessarily subject to judgement, the foundation of Christian theology.
“The fiords cast no shadows nor repent”: Coming out of fresh mourning, this father’s grief is no less than that of a mother whose struggle to rise out of the ashes of global catastrophe took more than a half century to see the post Atomic light in English translation. They are the sun and moon of a sadness that sheds light on the meaning of existence.
We have the word “widow,” but no noun to describe mothers whose children die in cruel reversals of the natural order.
Some mothers take on causes—war, guns, drunk drivers, malignant disease—that circumscribe their pain, as they resist the forces that robbed them of life. In this case, poems in the traditional Japanese tanka form, images drawn in the sand of time, describe exquisite sorrow in the global despair that followed the Manhattan Project.
In this book of Tanka poetry, the poet grieves like a crow, with lamentation, and rises out of the terrible ashes of closest family, her husband and son, leaving the signatures of truth and beauty on a wordless sky. In five lines, thirty-one syllables, tanka appear as short songs that stand in for wings when flight is necessary:
for this much sorrow
there is no word to describe
there is just a deep
sleep, that is needed, here
on the ground, alongside the dead
Translation, the job of daughter and poet, comes after the long sleep of history, where the world still struggles with adversarial behaviour and the politics of greed, where ordinary people suffer inconsolable loss. This is no ordinary literary project, but one that requires the delicacy of women able to pick through the ruins to find the heartbeat of life in death. Yumie Kono and Ariel O’Sullivan together are the Madonnas of recovery:
all of our race
obviously is destroyed
in the middle sky
there, a star, small and faintly
blinking is showing itself
Both books rely on witness accounts, voices past and present, to explain why we have poetry for comfort and inspiration when life is incomprehensible. It is prayer that serves creator and reader when nothing else suffices to life the aching heaviness of sorrow. Kono explains,
I am a floating weed
without any roots
tomorrow is the future
saying this is difficult
But between writer and translator, the arc of flight is hope.
The coincidental timing of books impacts our understanding of the duration of loss. It is forever as it moves and changes, making music on the rocks life gives us to carry. As the water that constitutes most of our being ebbs and flows, it becomes songs without words, the vehicles of cruelty and damnation. When gamblers from two hemispheres, Christian and Buddhist, weigh their risks, they consider the ride, their destination and the view. Does reason have value when the unknown determines the outcome of the game?
The gamblers weigh their risks with full understanding of the consequences
We risk love and love endures or withdraws its favours. We risk parenting and children move to ephemera. That is pain. And the universe delivers it without reason, the human condition.
Contemplatives choose not to wager, but to meditate and transcend the phenomenal world; but to remain out of the action is a choice that takes the meditator on it closer to God but further from life.
St. Anselm, an unrestrained thinker, came up with an engaging solution: God is that of which we can conceive nothing greater. That leaves us with an unidentified entity larger than intelligence or imagination, whatever we project on it.
Is that concept large enough in a contemporary world devastated by patriarchy, where power bites into the very life force that philosophers and poets struggle to describe? Maybe it is hidden in plain view, the phenomena Dawn describes with a painter’s eye.
There are no logical arguments for or against this greatest power, except of course the precepts of matriarchy, mother trees rising out of the swamp of human emotion and reason, regardless, the divine feminine perhaps the only concept beyond reason.
Dawn, his name prophetic, experiences grace in the light of procreation. Perhaps sex is the only divine ritual and the crowning of children the only evidence for divinity. He describes our mandate to persevere with the unknowing the cultivation of gardens, the ride that leads to death and possible resurrection or at least reconstruction. That is a priori in a system based on ephemeral existence.
But still, the aberrations irritate men who must formulate pearls of wisdom. I think therefor I am. Thought creates the expectation of answers. Every formula requires a solution. If enlightenment is a race, then reason might be a handicap: “Those halls of fame capture the races that no one wins.”
The garden, the river, the stars go on with or without us. We are caught in that inertia. To give in to the Id is to travel blind and vulnerable, to think is to choose from limited options. We cannot understand but we can observe and Pascal/Dawn creates a vision of beautiful chaos, a banquet to behold.
It is not chess. He will not win or lose, but, in lines that capture the sound and fury of love and loss, reveals the beautiful discourse of the wounded in the hopeful process of healing, their wisdom the dice we toss into the endgame we still hope to arbitrate.
Linda Rogers knows all about the efficacy of poetry that passes as prayer, curse, spell and poultice, and has noticed that poems are springing up like mushrooms in pandemic compost. Whatever works! Without poems it would have been worse. Linda Rogers’ Empress Trilogy is now complete with the publication of Repairing the Hive (Ekstasis), and Friesen Press printed her edited pandemic collection, Mother, the Verb, Swan Sister Treasure Book (2022), the stories of activist artists. Editor’s note: Linda Rogers has recently reviewed an omnibus review of poetry (by Shaun Robinson, Carellin Brooks, Jen Currin, David Ly, Zoe Landale, Gennie Gunn, Joseph Dandurand, Kristina Bresnen, Dale Tracy, and Karen Enns) as well as books by Leslie Gentile, David Bouchard & Kristy Cameron, Karen Whetung & Lindsay Delaronde, Julie Flett, Shawna Davis & Toonsa Jordana Luggi, Nicola Campbell & Carrielynn Victor, and Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson) & Natasha Donovan for The British Columbia Review. Her book Crow Jazz (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2018) was reviewed by Paul Headrick and Mother, the Verb, Swan Sister Treasure Book is reviewed by Cathy Ford.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster