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Elegy as death itself

Posted in Uncategorized on March 11, 2009 by tadros

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.

Lack of remorse

Posted in Uncategorized on March 11, 2009 by superduder

Before I began thinking about this question I decided to do more research about the elegy. I find that Structure and Surprise can be informative, but sometimes it just doesn’t speak my language. I pulled the research paper “no no” and went on Wikipedia, which I think gives information in a much more common way. “It commonly describes a poem of mourning, from the Greek elegeia (derived from elegos)—a reflection on the death of someone or on a sorrow generally. As such, it may be classified as a form of lyric poetry.” When I started to get more of an idea about the basic definition of the elegy I went back to Structure and Surprise and looked at in more detail in relation to Brian Henry’s work in Quarantine.

Based on what I infer an elegy to be I find that at times Quarantine comes off as being somewhat unconventional. In Structure and Surprise, Powell writes that the elegy stems from a desire to bring the dead back from obscurity. Numerous times throughout the section of the book I have read the speaker does not seem to show much remorse for the death of his wife and son. Although he is dead now also, it appears that he was the last to go. The lack of remorse in his words leads me to believe that these poems fall into the category that Structure and Surprise describes as “surrender to the experience of loss.” One example of the surrender to the experience of loss can be found on page 6.

“My wife died with her eyes open

but her eyes were not on me

when she died I was not there

when she died”

Although it seems like there was tension between the speaker and his wife before her death, a normal reaction would be to dwell on the loss. The speaker was not there when his wife died, but he does not express that in a remorseful tone. I think that the way in which Henry writes makes the elegy new. The speaker in the book is so careless and at times appears to be heartless. He conforms to the mythic tradition that Structure and Surprise also describes as the speaker “refusing solace in a structure that signals the triumph of death,” but he does it in his own way. The overall tone of the speaker is something I have never seen in poetry before and the lack of punctuation really makes the elegy Henry’s own type of poetry.


Quarantined Without Punctuation

Posted in Uncategorized on March 11, 2009 by Mary-Kate

Brian Henry works really well with letting the reader insert their own pauses, comas, periods, semicolons, and whatever other kind of punctuation the see fit to insert into it. I really liked this because unlike a typical poem without punctuation, Henry starts to give little ‘hints’ in the poem of where he would break it off and also how it should be read with all of the repetition. I think that this is breaking free from a standard poem with no punctuation where the line ends at the end of the line and continues like that throughout the entire poem. Actaully Henry keeps a continuation of thought going on within the entire book and links it to the freedom of not having any punctuation. This can be seen in Quarantine / 5, Quarantine / 6, and Quarantine / 7.

“As close to death as she I asked her

how she felt if she were happy right now

at last knowing where 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” (5)

As it can  be seen from 5, there is a different cut in the words once it comes to the word ‘joy’; the lines start pausing in the midst of the line with a sort of ‘hidden’ punctuation that you can just sense should be there. The same thing happens when Quarantine / 5 goes into Quarantine / 6 and then into Quarantine / 7.

“and then of course she died

not in her sleep but with her eyes open” (5)

“My wife died with her eyes open

but her eyes were not on me

when she died I was not there

when she died” (6)

“When she died I was at the river

though forbidden to leave for any reason

my throat a fleshy burn I left

the house to find water” (7)

The really interesting and cool thing about reading this kind of poetry that makes it a different elegy is that I could be reading this completely different then someone else who is reading this. It kind of puts the lines and the wording in the hands of the reader to interpret the way that they want to. For example, I read the exert from 6 a different way the very first time I read it then I did when I went back over the lines.

As to how this pertains to Structure & Surprise, I’m still not quite sure. The dialectal argument structure in this case might be between the reader and  Henry. The compromise, or the final part of the structure is the words on the page and the interpretation that the reader/Henry wants to take from it when the punctuation is removed.

Dealin’ with Death

Posted in Uncategorized on March 11, 2009 by exclamate

Brian Henry works very closely with the idea of loss/death that is so engrained in the elegy.  However, he diverges from this almost immediately in that he is speaking, instead of the death of a loved one, of the death of himself (or of the narrator) and of the narrator’s family (especially considering that if Henry is dead, he certainly has some skills in writing poetry in that state).  

The second difference I found was that it seemed that Henry was not trying to “bring the beloved back from obscurity” (Powell 83).  If we put aside the fact that this is published and thus a way to immortalize the dead, Henry does not seem to talk well about any of the “dead” within the poems.  For example, in Quarantine 5 he writes:

“and I screamed and screamed as my son

had screamed not at her but for my son

and then of course she died

not in her sleep but with her eyes open”

In this poem, we can see how the narrator is not immortalizing or lamenting any of the three dead characters.  The narrator himself is screaming, uncontrollably (hence the repetition) and cannot seem to feel sympathy for his wife (earlier in the poem, he is in conversation with her, yet when he screams it is for his son).  This also brings in the idea that the son was never comfortable during his death.  The wife wasn’t either.  She died, not in the peaceful, unaware state of sleep but “with her eyes open” not only awake but conscious and aware.  

This seems to me to be the opposite of a realization.  The elegy seems to reach towards some moment of hope, acceptance, or at least understanding.  Henry seems to be, at least so far, mostly regretful and uncomfortable with death.

Elegy for Wife and Son? OR NOT

Posted in Uncategorized on March 10, 2009 by erinl09

D.A. Powell begins his essay with some fairly vague qualifications for elegy: a loss poem that emits great love/respect, that attempts to triumph over death, and hopes to rescue the lost one.  Since they are quite general, it is not difficult for Brian Henry to adhere without completely conforming.

Quarantine certainly is preoccupied with death, but I wonder if it is some else’s death that the voice is lamenting, or if it is his own. When speaking of his family, he sounds detached, perhaps almost bored:

I remember my son died first
my wife three days after
I was relieved to hear him stop
screaming whenever he screamed
I felt like screaming at my wife
only cried she blamed me for
she blamed me for everything (Quarantine 4)

His indignation is that she blames him for their deaths, although “[he] was as close to death as she” (16)? Perhaps it is unfair to say he does not care about their deaths; the dullness likely comes out of them, which we sense in the Quarantine 6 poem.  It is with regret that he states his wife’s “eyes were not on [him],” although “[he] was not there / when she died” (1-4).  But maybe it is guilt-regret, after all, in the following poem he tells his wife he wishes for her to die, and is then happy that she knows, glad that “she died in pain” (10).  The only reason he does tell her this truth is that he knows he, too, is dying, and thus the admission is validation for him.  There is so little compassion in his accounts of her death!  Even his son’s death is only semi-saddening.  He does scream scream for his son (Quarantine 5, line 12), but later he says “I wish I had never had a son” (Quarantine 10, line 5).  Does he mean this?

This confusion stops me from knowing how closely Henry is coming to elegy.  Maybe it would be truer to say these poems are not elegies per say, but elegaic?  They are loss poems, and seem to try to triumph over death, but I am uncertain whether they are borne of great love/respect, and whether the voice wants to rescue his lost ones.  It may be easier for him to detach so as not to be crazy with pain. I think he’s worth the benefit of the doubt.

And where do the dog and young man fit in? Those italicized poems worked as outside perspective poems, satellite poems that were not speaking directly to the main narrative, but more intensifying the memorial effect.  I wondered if the young man was the voice, though younger, because he is identified in relation to the voice: a man who is younger than the voice.  The looking back seems to be done also in regret…

I have a feeling that Henry is going to lead me somewhere I was not expecting.  This analysis might be nullified by coming attractions.

Erasing and/or Memorializing

Posted in Uncategorized on March 9, 2009 by stephroush

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.

Blog Group B: Post 3

Posted in Uncategorized on March 9, 2009 by karlakelsey

Quarantine begins with a landscape of death. What elements of the “elegy” do you see Brian Henry working with in this book? In what ways does he make these elements new? In what ways does he conform to the tradition as it has been presented to us in Structure and Surprise?

Eighty-blade Sportsman’s Knife, By Joseph Rodgers & Sons

Posted in Uncategorized on February 28, 2009 by alc215

 I think one think that’s pretty consistent throughout Schiff’s poems is their repetition. In this poem, she focuses around the knife and the various words connected to it. In that sense, these connections to the knife and these leaps from the knife to other things and back again really hold the poem together. She does this in a way too, where the poem isn’t just a catalogue of object traits. I think what helps with this so much, is first, her seamless enjambment. I find myself ending on words a lot, and they seem finite with ending there, and then the line continues. And even though I am consciously aware that she’s going to enjamb the lines, I find myself surprised and really attracted to the freshness she brings each time. 

She also makes these leaps from object trait to object trait, that doesn’t necessarily make sense the first time reading them. Schiff definitely makes you think through each trait as a reader and see how they all connect to one another. In this sense, the object traits are far from ordinary, and I think that helps them to separate from just being a catalogue of traits. I can really see this in this stanza of the poem:

is improvisational, also death. All things
slip. But another name for the
butterfly knife I find more fitting is
“Manila Folder”; I’ll take world capitals
for two hundred plus ancient
technology (at least as old as the
Roman Empire) by which a blade pivots
Into its own hilt. It

Sounds like a place to file old receipts, Manila
Folder, but it only files one
blade over and over. It is not grace
or contempt, but repetition that sharpens
me, and as repeating your
own name contaminates the same way
a human’s touch repels a mother bird
from her eggs, I don’t think

So, just in these two stanzas, you can really see the jumps she makes that are evocative, and give a less catalogue-feel. She goes from the butterfly knife, to the manila folder, back to the blades of the knife, and then to a mother bird’s eggs. And simultaneously as the reader, you really have to think how these leaps can be made and how they all connect to one another. So the poetry, while difficult to read, really works hard in itself, and makes the reader work as well which speaks to its consistency.

Since both parties are working so hard to get some meaning out of words on the page, I definitely think there’s “enough” to get a meaningful read out of the poem. It’s not as overt as other poetry may be in reader relation, but I definitely think that if I spend enough time with a single poem, I can get a lot out of it. I think sometimes if it’s too difficult to derive a meaning though, you sort of just have to leave it in itself. And I do feel that way about some of the poems in this book but I think there is enough on the page if you really dissect it, especially in the poem I am working with.  


On the Contrary, My Dear Watson

Posted in Uncategorized on February 27, 2009 by Allyson

I decided to take a look at the poem “Heroic Couplet” on page 57. It goes a little something like this:

This is an

astral projection

left angular gyrus

When I came home last night I had my keys
but rang the bell so as to be received

by you

perceived location
actual location

With this poem, Schiff is structuring the poem in order to give the reader a feel of normalcy. The lines are single, couplet, repeat. I also noticed that the first two couplets have 5 syllables and then 10 per line, and then the last couplet has 5 syllables per line (depending on how you say actual). This gives the reader a subconscious pattern that they can hold onto while they read a poem they may not necessarily understand.

“Heroic Couplet” could mean several things, but the one that I used to analyze the poem was ” pair having characteristics of heroes”. Using this, we can attempt to pull something from the poem.

Heroes tend to do things without regard for themselves in the name of a greater good, and according to the Greeks, stars were equivalent to the gods– a greater good. Also, they believed that the soul was far more important than the body, which is where (I feel) the disembodiment comes from.

The next couplet is about the speaker having keys but ringing the doorbell anyways to be received. Heroes were welcomed everywhere back in Greece, even today. If someone does something Heroic (like a general or soldiers) we would have big parades and welcome them home (not so much today, but definitely during WWI and WWII. I guess today’s equivalent would be clapping in the airport for the soldiers that come home.).

The last stanza means “where you want to be. where you really are.” which is an arrangement I love. What if the two correspond? I’d imagine that while heroes are out and about fighting terrible monsters that they’d want to be somewhere else- even today’s soldiers. And I think that sense of longing is a terrible feeling, but a proper way to end this poem. Even though heroes are out saving the masses, they are still only human and probably longing to be somewhere else, with someone else.

Given the amount of explanation I just gave, you can assume what I am going to say next… Schiff  likes to give us as little as possible, but she does give a reader “enough” to pull something meaningful away from the poetry. This is something that I’ve aspired to do (and tried to do) but I don’t think I can write this “bare-minimum” because there is an instinct as a poet to worry about the reader. I have a little voice saying “What if they don’t get it?” and I guess that doesn’t really matter.

***side note: We don’t really know specifics into the relationship between the you and the speaker. We know they are a “couple”, but what kind? Sisters? Lovers? Friends?– Does it really matter???

McCormick’s Reaper

Posted in Uncategorized on February 26, 2009 by bennett89

There are a few elements Robyn Schiff’s “McCormick’s Reaper” that holds the poem together and to allow it to become more than simply a catalogue of object traits.

The historical content of this poem is important to note. I was first introduced to McCormick’s Reaper (the actual machine and not the poem) in a marketing class. McCormick invented a horse-drawn machine with a wheel of sickles that followed behind. This wheel chopped down the wheat. The Reaper was much more efficient  in harvesting  wheat by hand, but because it was the only one of its kind, the price was jacked up extremely high. It also took a few tries to get the machine perfect. In reference to Schiff’s poem, the structure of the lines resemble the image of the blades on the Reaper. It is also through Schiff’s words that express the general idea of this:

“isolates / the wheat” -what the machine does
“an acre gives ten men / to only five” -how many people it takes
“I rise, my guarantee.” -the price

Another interesting thing that holds this poem together is the speaker. There is a strong voice that comes through. It is interesting to think that Robyn Schiff places herself back in the 1800’s and writes in the persona of Cyrus McCormick.

Also, Schiff focuses a lot of the syllable count. Each one of the first four stanza starts off with a line that has 8 syllables, followed by one that has 6. The other two line vary between 6 and 10 syllables.

I had some trouble connecting the final staza to the rest of the poem in more ways than one. Introduction of the “rattlesnake” really throws me for a loops. This stanza also breaks the syllable form; every line has 9 syllables in it.