Donald Hall’s keen observations on grief in Without had a profound impact on my understanding of the possibilities of elegiac poems. Since relocating to London, Douglas Dunn’s slim volume Elegies has deepened my understanding of the form, and some of its specific cultural implications. Both collections were written in the wake of the poet’s wife’s death from cancer. And each, in its way, is a remarkable achievement of transcending loss to make art. But here the similarities end, and certain differences–ones I find illustrative of the subtle divide in Anglo-American poetics–begin.
Whereas Hall’s poems are largely confessional, Dunn’s might be called archaeological. Taking the first poems from each book as examples, we find in “Her Long Illness” an account in the third-person that is none-the-less told in scene, revealing intimate details of the couple’s final moments together. By contrast, Dunn’s “Re-Reading Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss and Other Stories” takes us through an examination of the stains on a book’s pages, invokes Robert Frost’s “A Considerable Speck” in addressing a fly, and only obliquely touches on the matter of grief itself in the final words of the poem: “one dry tear punctuating ‘Bliss’.”
Some of this stems from the vantage point taken up by the speaker–whereas Hall is re-living experience, going back to the hospital scenes in his mind, Dunn is reflecting, rooted in the present, casting forward and back. How each poet chooses to reflect or relive, however, and the effect this produces in the poems, brings colour to certain value differences between the two poetics.
Dunn’s reflective mode plays against contrasts to create irony. In “Arrangements” for example, the speaker visits the Registrar to receive his wife’s death certificate, asking “‘Is this the door?’ This must be it. No, no. / We come across crowds and confetti, weddings / With well-wishers, relatives, whimsical bridesmaids.” The adjacent office issuing death certificates is hardly jovial.
Dunn also contrasts their intimate lives, and his personal memories, with external social obligations and a deep-seated cultural value on keeping up appearances. In “Thirteen Steps and the Thirteenth of March”, the husband tends visitors with “Tea, sherry, biscuits, cake, and whisky for the weak… / She fought death with an understated mischief– / ‘I suppose I’ll have to make an effort’– / Turning down painkillers for lucidity.”
For Hall, the obligations that steal away the couple’s precious remaining private moments together, as well as much of their dignity, are medical in nature. His re-living is rife with shock, the first shock being the word in “‘A Beard for a Blue Pantry'” written in his wife’s “shaky large block capitals / staggering eight letters / out: L E U K E M I A”. Following this come the aftershocks.
There is the shock of humour–cracking jokes in the middle of a harrowing fight against death. In “Air Shatters in the Car’s Small Room”, after “mucositis / from the burn of Total Body Irradiation / frayed her mouth apart,” the husband enters her “antibiotic / cube … wearing a wide / paper hat, yellow mask, long white / booties like a Dallas / Cowgirl, blue paper surgical gown, / and sterile latex gloves. / Jane said he looked like a huge condom.”
There are also bodily shocks, as in last days when the wife realises her illness, in contrast to tender moments of lovemaking in the past, means “No more fucking!”, and in the remaining three nights before her death when she became incontinent and needed to be lifted by her husband onto the commode and wiped afterward. Fearing she would fall by attempting to do it herself, the husband phones for an ambulance to the hospital. She cries, and he cancels. Invoking her husband’s invented pet name, she says “‘Perkins, be with me when I die.'”
Even this sincere request is overshadowed by a note of humour, invoking a kind of “Kiss me Hardy” drama, and toying with the ethos of stoicism as in “I’m going out and I may be some time.” These moments of contrast, playing with received British mythos about how one should die, serve to underscore a relationship to grief that deliberately eschews dignity to explore the shocking physical and psychological aspects of death, and of losing the love of one’s life.
Looking through the lens of elegy is insufficient to make any sweeping, hard-and-fast distinctions about Anglo-American poetics, and looking at the cultural nature of elegy through just two poets may well be insufficient to pin down the differences in attitudes toward grief. Still, I chose these examples because they seemed to me to epitomise distinct possibilities within two culturally-informed literary treatments of similar circumstances.
Furthermore, the more I look at the distinctions between confession versus archaeology, re-living versus reflecting, and irony versus shock–the more these have become at least working models through which I have gained in understanding of the subtle differences in poetries written by two people separated by an ocean, and a common language to boot. More than this, I have come to understand the many ways in which honesty and introspection, realised through culturally-specific devices, can transform grief into art.