Elegy as death itself

Henry’s opening poems in Quarantine embody certain characteristics of the elegy described by Powell in Structure and Surprise: they are “concerned primarily with loss,” reflect “a mode of thinking” rather than following any prescribed form/structure, often turn more than once, and are most certainly characterized by descent. The losses are apparent as the speaker states unquestionably that he “knew [he] had died and was dead” (Henry 1) and that he recalls also his son and wife’s deaths (4). While the focus on what seems to be a widespread and rampant death in “the town of the sick and the dying” (4), the speaker is addressing other losses as well. In “Quarantine/4,” he says

I felt like screaming my wife

only cried she blamed me for

she blamed me for everything

I had brought it into our house

I was the cause for his death for hers

she never mentioned mine

though I was as close to death as she (4)

 

The speaker here is alluding to not only the physical deaths within his family, but the death of their relationships, a death he continues alluding too and one which we have reason to assume has been preceded by a long period of deterioration. The bitterness surrounding this relationship death is apparent in “Quarantine/5” when the speaker says,

As close to death as she I asked her

how she felt if she was happy now

at last knowing she had been right

if being right brought joy if

it was in itself a virtue

if rightness could be a source of joy

without knowing one were right

I know I was smiling as I spoke

as I myself was dying and she said nothing… (5)

 

As the speaker lays dying beside his dying wife, they are not attempting reconciliation; he is instead “smiling” and bitterly asking her if, awaiting her impending death, she is “happy now…knowing she had been right.”

Henry’s refusal of punctuation and his execution of line breaks both add to a reflection of the “mode of thinking” of the speaker, reflect the thought process of the dead. These tools create a sense of rambling and fuel a certain perpetual motion characteristic of racing thoughts. He also manages to render multiple meanings through his line breaks. For example, in “Quarantine/7,” the speaker says, …so I left and told my wife I hoped she died happy at least knowing she knew I hoped she died in pain hoping she knew I hoped she died in pain… (7) By breaking the line after “died,” Henry creates an ambiguity that serves the speakers bitterness. We may read this line thinking the speaker told his wife he “hoped she died” or that he “hoped she died/happy,” though this too is likely filled with bitterness in the context of their relationship as we are reading it. And did he hope she died “hoping,” in some sort of peace? Or did he simply hope she knew he was wishing her a painful death?

This is an example also of how Henry is reinventing the traditional elegy structure (if there is, in fact, a traditional elegy structure), addressing death and loss in fresh and unique ways. Powell writes that despite its focus on loss, the elegy “is embedded with implied love and with an overwhelming need to triumph over death.” On the contrary, Henry’s speaker suggests no love for his wife (certainly) or for his son. The closest we read to the suggestion of love for his son is in “Quarantine/4” when he says “I was relieved to hear him stop/screaming whenever he screamed/I felt like screaming…” (4).

Powell writes also that the elegy often aims “to bring the beloved back from obscurity” and is characterized by a “pattern of descent and ascent.” Henry’s speaker, however, clouds his family members, the closest figures we can read as any possible “beloved” subjects, in obscurity, addressing instead his bitterness, his apathy, and the physical realities of their dead bodies lying in the grass. And Henry’s poems seem to descend, certainly, but with no hope of ascent. We watch the descent of the relationship between speaker and wife and their simultaneous descents into what we assume to be a degrading and painful death from the title of the book and the environment of death and sickness Henry has depicted. We read no suggestion of hope or of the speaker having taken some meaning from the situation. At the conclusions, the final descents, of the poems, he is sometimes bitter — “I was the cause for his death for hers/she never mentioned mine/though I was as close to death as she” (4); sometimes matter-of-fact — “and then of course she died/not in her sleep but with her eyes open” (5); sometimes hopeless – “I knew I would not drink again/the water more painful than its absence/a jagged fire in the mouth and a knot/in the stomach as nothing came out” (7). He descends, but does not ascend.

Arguably, Henry’s work does feature the kind of “imaginative resurrection” Powell talks about in elegy in Structure and Surprise, as the speaker himself says he is dead but is speaking to us. But Henry really does not adhere to any of the three “central elegiac structures” Powell outlines: elegy salvaging victory from death by giving immortality to the mourned, elegy surrendering to the experience of loss in sadness, elegy refusing solace but discussing strong love. Henry’s speaker is certainly not victorious. He has surrendered to loss, but while we read a great deal of bitterness, some apathy, and occasional hopelessness, there is no suggestion of real sadness about his death and certainly not the deaths of his family members. Finally, the speaker isn’t really refusing solace because he doesn’t seem to be seeking it or attempting it in the first place.

Henry has taken the elegy and transformed it into something bleaker, something matter-of-fact, something characterized by a sense of inevitability, as death itself.

3 Responses to “Elegy as death itself”

  1. karlakelsey Says:

    Perhaps I am in a pessimistic mood, but I wonder if it is possible to write a genuine, true elegy in the “Powell” mode this day and age? Or is Henry’s bleakness, pointed out so well by Billie, a reflection of the way “people” of our times feel about death…

  2. I think the elegy may be getting further away from it’s original form simply due to the fact that death in today’s society, has become sort of matter-of-fact, and something that’s almost looming over everyone with the idea that “this is what we have to look forward to.” Henry’s work is really revealing in this sense because he does not restrict himself from saying that he is dead, despite that he is not in the physical sense, and he seems readily prepared for his own death. Henry is not afraid of this inevitability, and he is certainly not afraid of talking about death using his son and wife to exemplify this.

    On another note, I think it’s particularly interesting what you brought up about the lack of punctuation and how the lines can be read in so many ways. Either he wished his wife to die, or wished her to die happy, and so on and so forth. This ambiguity with the way each line is read is really attractive to me, and extremely successful–I admire it a lot.

  3. I don’t know if I would call the voice here “rambling”, but I do think that it effectively sounds droning to me. When I read these poems, I hear a low and droning voice, almost like a Monk chant (I don’t know if anyone else get’s that). Chanting in any sense is eerie, but I think that if you pair it with this particular style of writing it becomes something more. This voice definitely is freaky to me, that’s for sure.

    I think it is possible to write a Elegy the way Powell does in today’s age, but it would require being overly optimistic and having extreme like/love for something/someone. I mean, we do view as a natural occurrence that sucks… but it is bound to happen. That “but it is bound to happen” is just justification for it. I think the key to successfully writing an elegy emulating Powell’s is to stop justifying death and just run off that.

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