Features | May 16, 2022

Death & Co.: The Contemporary Elegy and the Poetry of Mourning in a Season of Grief 

Andrew Mulvania 


Obit by Victoria Chang. Copper Canyon press, 2020, 120 pp., $17 (paper).

Say Something Back & Time Lived, Without Its Flow by Denise Riley. NYRB Books, 2020, 136 pp., $16 (paper).

Riven by Catherine Owen. a misFit Books, 2020, 88 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Middle Distance by Stanley Plumly (posthumous collection). W.W. Norton & Co., 2020, 96 pp., $16.95 (paper).

“The problem / with everything is death,” writes Diane Seuss in frank: sonnets (one of the more noteworthy poetry collections to appear in the past year, though one not reviewed here as it is not principally concerned with death and dying). Seuss continues, “There really is no other problem / if you factor everything down.” Judging by the number of recent collections of poetry concerned with grief and grieving, and simply consulting our own experience, it is difficult to argue with Seuss: death, and our response to it—grief, mourning—does, in fact, seem to be the greatest, most intractable obstacle to our happiness in this life. But that has long been so. Just this year, archaeologists discovered the oldest known burial site, in Kenya, the grave of a child, dating back more than 78,000 years. The position of the bones upon examination revealed that the child had been buried with its head pillowed, its body swaddled in a shroud, suggesting the ancient origins of our need to honor and lament the dead in formal ritual, whether by language or gesture.  

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