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Among the Dead: Ah! and Afterward Yes!

among-the-dead_frontAmong the Dead:  Ah! and Afterward Yes!
by Becca Jensen
Les Figues Press, March 2013
75 pages / $15  Buy from Les Figues Press or SPD
Winner of the inaugural Les Figues Press NOS Book Prize as selected by guest judge Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s forward for Among the Dead: Ah! and Afterward Yes!, she identifies the “atmosphere of allusion” that Jensen creates in the collection: “the feeling of reading great books: of being inside an enormous bell, a bell cast from the world’s wide store of epics and elegies and tales and novels, unable to tell where one’s own voice ends and the reverberations begin.” The ambition of such a project is belied by the small, and thus manageable and relatable, lens of an absurdist nuclear family: an unnamed daughter, a Collector, and the parents Mr. and Mrs. G. The family speaks and acts through fragments of English literary canon; they fish, sail, swim, and drown in the heartbreaking lines of Tennyson, Eliot (both T.S. and George), Keats, and others, but the ties of family make Jensen’s work more than collage poems. Because the characters are real within the world of Jensen’s collection, they have mysterious histories, present foibles, and future prospects.

The sophistication in Jensen’s assembly of Among the Dead: Ah! and Afterward Yes! can be seen as an advocacy for the acknowledgement of poetry as a product of linguistic innovation that cannot shed its ancestors. But what is important about the way Jensen looks back on everything that has created her work? The family in Among the Dead, though abstracted through a lack of traditional narrative, does not take place solely in a nostalgic chamber of fragments. There is a lived experience, an authenticity that can be vouched for despite its “fiction-ness.”

Mr. Grumble Grumbles

Like many heroes who find themselves haphazardly at the center of the plot,
Mr. G concluded that

a) this was a very stupid story

&

b) he didn’t care to hear it again.

“Mr. Grumble Grumbles” is a poem that appears very early in Jensen’s book, a piece that is un-prefaced by any of the Collector’s fragments until much later. Instead, readers are presented with an exhibit from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss.

From “The Collector: And”

Maggie Tulliver is the main character in Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. When the river Floss floods, Maggie attempts to save her estranged brother Tom, whose home lies dangerously near the flood’s course of destruction. (Despite the fact that Tom has recently disowned Maggie for what he deemed sexually loose behavior.) Once she rescues him, the water capsizes their boat and they drown. Their bodies are “found in close embrace” and buried in a tomb inscribed with: “In death they were not divided.” Because Tom has a history of withholding affection and approval from Maggie, and since the exact particulars of their death are unclear, it could be interpreted that the dead siblings’ “close embrace” is not mutual. That after the boat overturned, only Maggie clung to Tom, while in all likelihood he tried to free himself from her grasp. With this reading in mind, the flood does not kill Tom Tulliver, Maggie does.

Those who hold The Mill on the Floss dear to their hearts cannot help recalling the heart-wrenching privations and systematic undermining of Maggie Tulliver. Despite possessing beauty in temperament and genius, Maggie is carried inexorably down a stream of predetermination, one that leads to a lack of social and familial acceptance, and a deprivation of personal fulfillment. A love for The Mill on the Floss is a love for Eliot’s tender treatment of her characters. Jensen’s Collector, however, does not lead the reader in any particular direction with his unemotional delivery of references and fragments, but a poem at the end of Among the Dead provides a meditation.

From “Strophe: Much Turning of the Head from Side to Side”:

Or, perhaps the former—and you are Virginia Woolf. You look toward the future and see the past; the present is not even a minor concern. In other words: Faulkner’s Miss Coldfield, who we always will find sitting the summer away in the house’s hottest room with the windows closed and the blinds closed because this is what the past demands.  “The only romance that George Eliot allowed herself,” said Woolf. Imagine living your entire life with that fog at your face. A body heavy with dust. Is it any wonder that you are not a good person? Are you surprised to learn you drag your brother down to the bottom of River Floss? For it is unlikely that it was Tom Tulliver who would not let go.

Jensen is not satisfied with the easy casting of Maggie Tulliver as the victim. It is Mr. G who is given the voice of Tom Tulliver in “Mr. Grumble Grumbles,” and it is at the end of the Among the Dead that the reader learns from where Mr. G gains his voice.

From “The Collector:  Hyperion”:

“this was a very stupid story he didn’t care to hear it again” George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss. The he is Tom Tulliver who, unlike his sister Maggie, has a limited love of learning: “[…] wonderful fighting stories about Hal of the Wynd, for example, and other heroes who were especial favorites of Tom, because they laid about them with heavy strokes. He had small opinion of Saladin, whose scimitar could cut a cushion in two in an instant: who wanted to cut cushions? That was a stupid story, and he didn’t care to hear it again. But when Robert Bruce, on the black pony, rose in his stirrups, and, lifting his good battle-axe, cracked at once the helmet and the skull of the too-hasty knight at Bannockburn, then Tom felt all the exaltation of sympathy”

Tom, after all, must die along with Maggie, and is perhaps killed at the hands of a sister who led a troublesome life. Jensen supplies the reader with a portraiture of Tom by Eliot in her distinctively sympathetic style. Rather than paint Tom in the “heavy strokes” of a philistine, Eliot allows us to see Tom as a young man who exults in triumph, conquering, and vanquishing. Tom’s world is reduced to bulky components, which are simpler to experience and dismiss, and what reader can deny that they have often participated in the same paring away of meditation? That Mr. G is given a poem that voices his baser annoyances and predilections gives Tom Tulliver legitimacy. How many times have we, as individuals, inhabited Tom instead of Maggie? And how compelling is the reader experience of placing ourselves within Jensen’s character, who is placed within the context of a canonical literary character the reader has read and loved and hated?

Jensen brings literary legacy into personal legacy, and voices personal legacy through poetic narrative. The poignancy of the family’s story in Among the Dead brings the reader into the dizzying consideration of the infinitely-looping triangulation between stories and poems, the reader’s incorporation of stories and poems into their private lives, and the writer’s role in solidifying lives—their own lives, their characters’ lives, their readers’ lives—through the creation of new work. Jensen provides the reader with references to ancient Greek texts, scholarly Jewish thought from before the Common Era, Shakespeare, Romantic poets, Old English epics, and modern-day feminist poets. With these references swimming in our heads, Jensen presents us with a family arc that is distorted and surreal, but made meaningful and touching through the stories and poetry from which the family’s fragments are derived. Jensen celebrates language, but also celebrates the history of myth-making, storytelling, and the beautiful crafting process of poetry. Jensen celebrates the canon of literature, and the web-like reach of our individual literary history; when we grip within ourselves the story of Moby Dick, we are also gripping the literature that Melville read in his personal journey as a reader. In this way, Jensen’s decision to provide Mr. and Mrs. G with a daughter is almost necessitated by the view that we are all offspring of the writers who have come before us. Mr. and Mrs. G are given histories interpreted through the lens of great writers, but the daughter must continue on. The daughter must live alongside her parents’ ghosts, but she is not haunted by them. Instead, she coolly acknowledges, in the penultimate poem of the book, that “The moral…is the end is always a lie.” The finite nature of literary forms is a significant lack in the realm of realistic portrayal, but the quality does not detract from the fulfillment and legacy that literature can give us. Jensen tellingly ends Among the Dead with the cool voice of the Collector, who flatly delivers us the final note:

From “The Collector: Hyperion”:

“…which be the flowers, as it were, and colors that a poet setteth upon his language by art” is from The Arte of English Poesie by George Puttenham (1589). Again, Puttenham, following the Elizabethan trend, is arguing how art and artificiality enhance nature

***

Ginger Ko studies at the University of Wyoming’s MFA program.  Her poetry is forthcoming in Anti- and TYPO. She is originally from Los Angeles.

 

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