If nothing else, literature of mourning helps readers to understand their emotions and join a community of those who have experienced the same vacuum after a loss.
In this slow grieving period after losing my aunt, I’ve found the most comfort in three books:
Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diaries
Anne Carson’s Nox
Kevin Young’s edited poetry anthology The Art of Losing
The business of creating art from grief is a sticky, although necessary, one. In Mourning Diaries, Barthes writes, “I don’t want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it – or without being sure of not doing so – although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths” (23). His book is a collection of notes, at times fragments, that was not intentionally organized for publication. He wrote these notes after his mother passed. A few of the original notes were published on the New Yorker’s blog. His haunting observations, memories and facing of his sadness offer both literature and truth to the reader.
Like Barthes, Carson focuses on one relative. She elegizes through memories, drawings, pictures, letters, history and myth, altered dictionary definitions of ancient Greek words and creates a memory book her brother who was mostly absent throughout her life. The absence, then and after his passing, is present throughout the text. To add to the intimacy, Nox was published as one continuous sheet and placed in a box. (See the box and scroll in this short video.)
In the review of Nox in the New Yorker, O’Rourke reminds us: “Grief is paradoxical: you know you must let go and yet letting go cannot happen immediately. The literature of mourning enacts that dilemma; its solace is mainly in the ritual of remembering the dead and then saying, There is no solace and also, This has been going on a long time.”
Kevin Young, after losing his father suddenly, edited The Art of Losing, an anthology of poems of grief and healing. I am sure that I am not the only one to want to thank you for doing so. He has gathered together classic and contemporary poets under the headings of Reckoning, Regret, Remembrance, Ritual, Recovery and Redemption (there are additional lists in the back of the book.) As if grieving together with the reader, we move through the wide range of emotions. He reminds us in the introduction, “Though dedicated to the dead, in a crucial way elegies are written for the living.” You can hear him read some of his own poems on NPR.
There are many more books on the same subject, of course. I remember poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar telling our MFA poetry workshop at Sarah Lawrence that most poems come from a sense of longing. How could we not write about our grief? I’ve listed these books and others in my Amazon store.
What other books would you recommend?