“Elegy” is a one-line poem by W.S. Merwin that reads: “Who would I show it to?” In his semi-autobiographical novella, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972), Peter Handke’s account of his mother’s life and death, the author tells the reader at the outset that he needs to write down everything before he forgets his mother, who committed suicide by sticking her head in the oven. What do you do when death throws you into the state of isolation? Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Hard Travel to Sacred Places (1994) got me through a rough patch, though not without tears. There are books that help you even as they give you pleasure. This morning I read Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snow Man” for the umpteenth time.
This is the company where Bone Confetti (winner of the 2015 Noemi Press Poetry Award) by Muriel Leung belongs. Her poems grabbed me by the throat — “At the fat lip edge of the world, there is a blue boat/in cannibal water.” The last two words cannot be pried apart. Over again and again, while reading this book — my first prolonged encounter with Leung’s poems — I was struck by their excess: “I am swollen with sound, humming.” Or: “Ecstatic phrase: mourn you better. Or else.” Or else what? How can you mourn someone better when you are possessed by grief?
I must have read four or five poems before I realized that Bone Confetti was about the poet’s mother. I know it sounds cold to say, but I don’t think that the story mattered, partly because Leung doesn’t reminisce, doesn’t fill her poems with anecdotes or memories that all too quickly devolve into sentimentality. This book is full of “whiskey gash and glitter shrapnel.” She meets the violence of her grief with poems populated by holograms, robots, and ghosts, by words and sounds and lines “brimming over the row of slender boxes.” The poet’s outrage becomes outrageous: “I should kiss the electric spark that loves me […]. Or: “Crack/an egg on your pretty head and let the tadpoles suck/the runny yolk.” Grief breaks open your boundaries and all sorts of stuff floods in, as you ride the roller coaster of your feelings, wondering: “Is my mouth a prison of gilded words?” And if it is, how do you make them escape? How do you drive them out or banish them?
Does grief exceed words, or is it the other way around? How do you give voice to the animal howling inside of you? Surely, not by giving it a name and taming it. “Such fury/fuels the house adrift, the house cobwebbed but wanting/of visitors.” These lines are from the poem “Evacuation.” When reading it, I was reminded of Euripides’ play Medea and of the maenads, which is to say there is nothing topical about Leung’s subject or her handling of it. The poems can be grisly, gothic, and obsessed, not to mention quirky and disturbing. As much as you may suspect that Leung is possessed, you also feel that she is in control of every word she places on the page. The poems can be cool and feverish. They can be funny, odd, opaque. We cannot see through them to her, and why should we? She isn’t trying to tell stories, because grief explodes them. I have no doubt that at some later point in time I will come back to these poems so that they might “swarm me.”