Erasing and/or Memorializing

In one sense Brian Henry’s Quarantine is a very traditional elegy, as if the speaker is writing out of that mythic Underworld that is the very origin of the elegy tradition. This afterlife/underworld is translated in his early realizations:

“I knew I had died and was dead
though thinking through where I was
as if the thinking could bring me
where death is not an is
instead of where I found myself
watching my wife and son without
seeing them beside me on the ground
but knowing they were there” (Quarantine 1).

Right now, I see the elegy form emerging out of the second strain of the mythic tradition. Structure and Surprise calls this a “surrender to the experience of loss” and “refusing solace in a structure that signals the triumph of death” (84). The surrender to the experience of loss is continually apparent for me in each poem or poem section. I see this in the speaker’s attitude of observation: “the moon / does not care about the bodies there / in that field on the earth at dawn / the moon cannot see and if / the moon could see it still would not care” (Quarantine 1). I also feel the way the speaker is cut off from everything “calls for additional mourners” simply through the dark atmosphere and then more directly in meditation of various losses (Structure and Surprise 83). This speaker seems to be attempting erasure more than memorializing. It might be part of a larger quarantine theme, but I cannot be certain at this point. The speaker certainly devalues his life and the bodies and feels that no one will approach their bodies with reverence, but rather the bodies “had been pulled from the trees / at the other side by the feet / by men in charge of clearing / the town of the sick the dying / the dead dead we were cleared” (Quarantine 4).

The speaker’s detachment is part of the new element Henry brings to the elegy. The speaker is part of what is lost, creating an elegy for himself, rather than an outside speaker looking into the loss through the poem. In addition to new grounds in the speaker, I think Henry plays with our expectations of what should/will be elegized. We are presented with this horrific imagery, cold imagery because the speaker turns away from his family and also feels turned away from. I hope that makes sense. What the speaker does elegize is his own life, but particularly a life that he did not live:

“I feel sad about many things my life
being the main thing
it lacks texture lacks matter
its arc like every other arc
I wish I had never had a son
sons always hate their fathers
I had no wish for a daughter
no wife no lover no no” (Quarantine 10).

I feel fairly safe in suggesting that a reader would expect the speaker to mourn the death of his wife and son and his place in that life, but that is not the case in the opening of Quarantine. So my immediate reaction to these poems in relation to the elegy tradition is that Henry conforms to the tradition in the second mythic strain. The speaker is immersed in loss and writes in an atmosphere that feels similar to Orpheus in the Underworld, but instead of memorializing the greatness of life, this speaker uses death to mourn his existence. I titled this post “Erasing and/or Memorializing” because I see both elements so far in the poems. I think that while the speaker attempts erasure of his textureless life his very voice and description becomes a memorializing of it.

3 Responses to “Erasing and/or Memorializing”

  1. karlakelsey Says:

    I think this post does a great job at teasing out why the feels so authentically uneasy rather than feeling like work that capitalizes on the horrific (turning to look at the traffic accident). Because the work invests in tradition but refuses the nostalgic/memorializing aspects we associate with death and elegy the poems become more complicated than work that capitalizes on shocking content. Perhaps this can be likened to the Olds elegy, though I feel that in the 21st century the kind of speaker she creates is slightly expected (a feminine speaker that resists sentimentality) whereas Henry’s speaker jars me.

  2. Melissa Goodrich Says:

    I definitely see erasure operating in this body of work – almost as if the speaker is translucent, or like a strainer and only catching essential particles (like, “I cannot remember lying down/ with the boy’s mother not once” which is so powerful because it’s so bare). The memorializing seems to come out of the emptiness (his speech is candid simply because it’s not masked by pretense, his thoughts/feelings as close as they get to nude) but there are equal moments of emptiness where some big thing is left unsaid (for instance, “one night I was thrown into the river/one night held down by two boys/ as another tried to finish me/ and still I went to the river” or “my father would not speak to me/ told me I would be married that year/ or my father would kill her/ not me or the man at the river but her/ and I was married that year”). I think what makes his approach so powerful is that he doesn’t explicate on what can so easily become melodramatic (how awful it would have been to read “I loved my mother so much/ she was the only one who understood me/ and when my father threatened to kill her/ I gave up my love of the man at the river/ and took a wife”). What is said point-blank is balanced by what is left unsaid and creates an eerie atmosphere wherein his life is memorialized because we readers relate to him as human (even as he is ethereally not, being dead and all). At least, that’s my interpretation of what you mean by this speaker seeming to create an elegy for himself.

  3. stephroush Says:

    I think the concept of catching essentials in the voice of the speaker is part of what I was seeing in my post. I definitely agree with you Melissa about the shock of the statements are in the lack of explication. This speaker jars me as well. I am sure it is partly the matter-of-fact succession in the lines which creates statements lacking emotion. I do not feel the speaker tense up during violence or death and so forth. So much is said but there is still a fair amount of withholding. I am reading this as similar to your comment on the balance of what is said and left unsaid. I don’t think I his thoughts “nude” or maybe even “close to nude.” The more I read in Quarantine I feel the speaker is covering his words over in other images and lack of punctuation and the next stanza. Things are folding back on themselves. I felt a “nudity” in the speaker at the beginning of the book, but my relationship to him is changing. He changes on me? You can tell I have not quite clarified this movement in the reading yet.

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