Next to Nothing by Chris Agee

In his most recent collection, Next to Nothing, Chris Agee fuses voracious verbal intelligence with well-tuned musicality. But this is not why I am compelled to re-read this book. Written in the years following the death of his four-year-old daughter, Agee’s elegies ring with veracity, transcending reportage of paternal grief even as it details, in quiet and careful ways, sentiments and sensibilities I know from my own experience of loss to be true beyond true beyond achingly true.

One poem in particular, from the “Heartscapes” series, stopped me on the page:

Your Face

in the window
where I wave
at the childminder’s
new child

The enjambment spring-loads this poem like a haiku. The moment of recognition unfolds, as “Your Face / swims / in the window,” then is seemingly recognized and acknowledged by the speaker’s wave.

But just as suddenly as grief can seize upon the moment, so too are we readers startled by what I call a sense of “wrongness within the rightness.” The repetition of “child” in the lines “…the childminder’s / new child” lends “rightness” to the phrasing, since, after all, a childminder should have a child to mind even as a shopkeeper should keep the shop.

Yet the parity in this phrasing is deceptive. The “wrongness” of the situation is driven home in the first word of the final line–“new.” We are thereby stunned in the realization that it is not at all “Your Face,” but the face of another. Here we enter the complexity of grief, torn between the supposed normalcy of life going on–the childminder finding a new child–and the heartbreaking realization that the speaker’s child, assumed to have been formerly under this same childminder’s care, is now forever gone.

It is this ability, not just to speak of, but to impart the particulars of such profound, at times existential grief, that draws me to this book. In this brief poem, Agee demonstrates grief’s unexpected, and at times overwhelming conquest of mundane living in the aftermath of loss, and the sometimes unconquerable sense of “wrongness” in the fact that life goes on.

In poem after poem, Agee weaves a rich tapestry–finding solace, as I have, in conversing with great poets like Yehuda Amichai and Seamus Heaney; blending the landscapes of Ireland, America, and Eastern Europe; figuring and re-figuring the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice; and above all giving full, fierce, and heartfelt tribute to his beloved daughter, Miriam. This collection is a remarkable gift, not only to a bereaved father, but to each of us on this Earth, baffled by our own individual and collective griefs and triumphs, and, even, as he says at the end of “Depths,” “by the empty sky, / the bitterness // which will never wash / out of the shining blue.”