Pushcart 2015: Kathleen Ossip, “Elegies” (Poetry) from Poetry Magazine, December 2013

de Kooning: "Elegy", 1939

de Kooning: “Elegy”, 1939

All song is formal, and you
Maybe felt this and decided
You’d be formal too. (The eyeliner, the beehive: formal.)
When a desire to escape becomes formal,
It’s dangerous….

The formal definition of “elegy” fits right in to this theme I insist on imposing upon the works in this volume: looking forward, looking back, either /or: the first half of a classic elegy expresses loss, the second half, hope as what was great about the lost one is incorporated into the lives of the living. I’m not sure these elegies fit that exact description. I’m not sure they need to; they do other things.

These five elegies (available online, thank you, Poetry Magazine) come from Ossip’s most recent poetry collection, The Do-Over which is, she said in a Bookslut interview before the book was completed, centered on her own loss of a family member dear to her.

In this section she elegizes a series of public figures: Amy Winehouse, Steve Jobs, Troy Davis, Lucian Freud, and Donna Summer. That’s a wide variety of death there; just the names generate a series of feelings ranging from pity over a life lost too soon to anger over injustice to admiration of talent or accomplishment to a sort of embarrassed nostalgia (come on, you loved disco and you know it). Maybe we feel all those things at once, and much more, with the death of anyone close to us.

The clock is obdurate,
Random, and definite.
Obdurate the calendar.
You thump on the cot: another signature.
Did it didn’t do it would do it again.
And if a deferred dream dies? Please sign the petition.

In most, there’s an italicized word or phrase: “Understood by music”; “deferred”; “All”. Do these relate to the elegized, to the elegist, to the society that saw the passing of these figures? Words are also repeated, and unexpected words: “Obdurate” and “signature” in Troy Davis’ elegy. Who was it that was obdurate? Davis was, as he maintained his innocence even as sat in the execution chamber. So was the State, who didn’t care about conflicting eyewitness stories and possible coercions. Signatures on petitions to stay the execution were more numerous but less powerful than the signatures that authorized the State to kill him. The italicized “deferred” in this poem breaks my heart; so much is deferred in Davis’ life/death story, not the least of which is our own humanity when we – and it is we, since we allow it – push the plunger on the fatal syringe.

I also see a lot of wordplay in these pieces: “Effects worth undertaking” in Lucien Freud wouldn’t have the same connotation if not in an elegy; “Vengeance is mind says the body” fits Steve Jobs perfectly, as does the repetition of “silver” in multiple forms throughout. Does “silver” have some innate connection to him? Does “silverish” bring to mind imitation, or “silverfish” – book-destroying bugs (bugs!). I’m not sure if it’s seemly to feel such delight as I felt in these elegies, but I admire the thought that went into them, each word, each phrase.

But let’s not leave out the most obvious, wordplay of all: each poem is an acrostic with the subject’s name as the spine word. For some reason, that feels like overkill to me, though I do love a crostic (to which my own obsession with mesostics will attest), and the use of restriction seems both appropriate, and counterappropriate, to an elegy. Death is the ultimate stricture on all of us – or maybe life is. Perhaps death is also the most freeing moment of human existence. Looking back, or looking forward? Is looking the operative word?

There is a sort of elegiac turn in the poems, though not necessarily from grief to hope. It’s more a turn from the departed, to the bereaved. Ossip’s Bookslut interview, done before the book was completed, shows this is a possibility, as she talks with Joseph Harrington about who’s voice dominates an elegy:

Ossip:…the peril of writing an elegy is that you’re going to insert yourself into it and make it not about the other person but about your own grief…. — your grief is part of the story, too. So that’s maybe an honest way — or another honest way — of approaching an elegy, because you know your own grief in a way that you can never know another person….
Harrington: I think that’s true about elegy; it’s about surviving the other person.
Ossip: And it’s about the voice of the bereaved.

All of these high-profile deaths occurred between July 2011 and May 2012; the collection was published this year, but apparently was completed in 2013. I wonder if that was the period during which Ossip was dealing with the death of someone dear to her, or if they were chosen in retrospect. That feels significant to me as well. Inward, outward; forward, back; which way was she looking? Which way do we look as we read them?


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