After the death of his mother, the French philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes recorded a note that eventually became his book, Mourning Diary. Barthes wrote: It is, here, the formal beginning of the big, long bereavement.
None of us escapes the long bereavement, but our response is individual, shaped by culture, temperament, and personal history. One of poetry’s crucial functions is to illuminate the interiority of our emotional lives and to construct a bridge between the self (I-ness) and other (thou/world). Certain poets are called to this task. They act as translators of the unsayable and unspoken, those painful aspects of existence that are also archetypal and universal.
This is the domain of J.L. Conrad’s fearless chapbook, Recovery, an unsparing exploration of grief. The speaker in this long-sequenced poem has undergone an initiation through loss and speaks from the borderless territory in which the membrane between memory, dream, and ordinary time is porous.
Here, the non-rational world manifests in fractured images and flashes of conversations, displaying a protean ability to shape-shift. Language, however, is an imperfect vehicle for conveying subjective experience, and if segments of Recovery appear cryptic, dotted with private symbology and recollections, it is because the author is dedicated to delivering with utmost fidelity the disjointed and slant reality one experiences in the grip of devastation.
This is all, in one way or another,/a conversation about
The experience of grief is untranslatable, but a fierce will to survive, to make sense of, to love the loss because it is one’s connection to the beloved demands that the poet, beset by chaotic memories and incomprehensible dreams, not abandon her task. To read Recovery with the expectation of being centered in chronological narrative time with its meaning-making reliance on cause and effect is to mistake that meaning can be deduced only by linear thinking rather than by the poetic imagination’s associative flow.
The first line of the opening passage, “The lungs are the seat of grief,” situates the speaker in bodily jeopardy. She is ailing. We are not told why, exactly, only that she has been altered; grief has transformed her. The following passages reveal an unfolding process of transformation, and it is hard work. And yet Conrad pursues that elusive goal, deploying incantatory rhythm as an oblique form of prayer.
The initiation into purgatorial space is a descent; questions about the nature of reality and language arise. A short passage depicts the speaker and her son playfully engaged in the imagination’s capacity to transform reality.
My son and I pretend the sand along the curb
Is quicksand, the fire hydrants
dragons, the branches we find
along the way magic wands.
The trees are candles,
I am not used to making such concessions.
Such amens, such amendments.
Spring with its fangs and blossoms.
The closing image of fangs and blossoms alludes to the natural cycles of destruction and creation, death and rebirth. After the lighthearted moment with her son, the speaker rejects childish whimsy and the imagination’s capacity to transform anything.
What propels the reader onward is the intimacy established by the urgency of the speaker’s voice, her bravery in probing inarticulate yearnings. Loss and suffering are inclusive, a human concern. As the poet Tess Gallagher has written, let us be strengthened by the wisdoms of our grieving.