A review of Prageeta Sharma's 'Grief Sequence'
Prageeta Sharma’s Grief Sequence opens in the long aftermath of a loss, in grief’s viscosity, which seems to choke out every poem it encounters. The grieving process — looking, not looking, feeling, not feeling, hearing, not hearing — has become a string of aesthetic encounters, together with refusals to encounter, that risks exhausting itself. At the hospice, where her husband will soon die from esophageal cancer, Sharma recalls wanting to know “the tools and methods poets and artists had to say goodbye.” It doesn’t matter, she decides. Whether the poems on her bedside, her father’s reading of the Vedic scriptures, or the beauty of a ceremony, they seem insufficient to her mourning. Yet it’s through this insufficiency that Sharma begins to approach her loss, through a poetry that cannot hope to enclose her grief — a poetry of residues, attachments, and relations in which mourning opens into a difficult expression of aliveness.
In their introduction to Loss: The Politics of Mourning, David L. Eng and David Kazanjian write that “mourning remains,” so that what is lost calls attention to what lingers, and what has died gives itself endlessly to what lives. “Avowals of and attachments to loss,” they continue, “can produce a world of remains as a world of new representations and alternate meanings.” In cultivating an attachment to loss, Sharma’s poems refigure grief as an aesthetic relation, where a poetry of mourning in its insufficiency carries with it a way of feeling, seeing, and hearing in the aftermath of death — an incompletion that makes grief thinkable and even survivable. “Nothing so far had taught me about death,” Sharma writes. “Not even poetry. That is, until I found it during the grieving process” (80). In grieving, she turns to the sequence, its figuration across senses — an order, a poetic series, a scene, a consequence, a story, a learning, a flow. These sequences most often take the shape of elegiac prose poems, in which what remains gives way to both the pain of loss and the possibility of living in its wake. But the sequence falters — as a narrative strategy, it cannot contain or stabilize her grief:
I thought that accounted grieving would banish all the anxiety, but it came back this year. I became debilitated. I have a debilitating anxiety that I thought was gone. I have too many anxious sequences now and they are blurring meaning. They are blurring my truths like time-lapses and I don’t rush to find the joy of the occurrence without looking for the traps, and my logic, and my stumbling out into another bed that places me in this now-future and you don’t see me because you are no longer alive with me and I can’t rectify this sequence. (44)
The sequence’s faltering, its broken rhythms and relapses, underwrites Sharma’s collection. This is a mourning that rejects any promise of closure, except as a breach in closure itself. Sharma’s poetry narrates the meanings and remains that emerge in the grieving process, even as it reveals the insufficiency of grief’s narration. In doing so, her poems create an aesthetic opening. Her sequences offer a way to live in and through the untidy temporalities of grief.
These sequences hinge on the optics of death: the dead, who cannot see or be seen, yet are glimpsed everywhere in their disappearing. In “A Human with Feelings,” Sharma traces this aesthetics of disappearance, what it might mean in the afterlife of death “to be in this body being unseen by you” (4). A world of remains coheres in her husband’s absence, reprised across the many artifacts that announce his vanishing, whether his floral shirt or the artworks that survive him. But not content to perform invariable repetitions of loss, Sharma’s poems instead practice grief as transformation, as flux, as worlding. She opens her book with Roland Barthes’s invective against the stasis of mourning, followed by his call for its fluidity — “[n]ot to suppress mourning … but to change it, transform it, to shift it from a static stage (stasis, obstruction, recurrences of the same thing) to a fluid state” — from which she begins to develop a poiesis of grief. Even as mourning threatens to plaster her loss, to enclose it, her poetry opens into a world of aesthetic recuperations and relations.
In “Sequence 1,” she notes a fluidity in remembering, together with the deadly transformations of her husband’s dying. “Memories curved and then sounded,” she writes, “were sibilant and jest, and from not-his-mouth, and not-his-teeth” (13). Grief’s aural staging reveals its estranging displacements of affect and sound in the body’s disappearance, from which Sharma begins to language absence and her attachments to it. She later describes these poems as a way of “fighting to sound out all the activity no longer between us” (37). In cultivating an attachment not to a decedent world but rather precisely to its absence — the world of remains which mourning coheres — Sharma’s poems offer an aesthetic practice of mourning as a way of living in relation to loss. In her remarkable two-part “Complicated Spiritual Grief,” she looks (and then does not) to the disappearing that shapes this mourning:
When I faced it, all I had was his past before the cancer and what was leading up to it which led me down his rabbit hole, which may have included a brain tumor and many other tumors. All the spindly parts, tumor-shaped, even things painted for me by his admirers, some faulty, some careless. Spindly grievers. I couldn’t look at any of them as they kept metastasizing, but that was an action I knew was not mine to claim but through my affections for my beloved. (2)
How to sound out silence? How to glimpse disappearance? Or, returning to Sharma’s question: how to say goodbye? “I couldn’t look” — the phrase announces an aesthetic turn, beyond the recursive enclosure of looking and hearing and touching a past so as to immobilize it. Here, grief becomes as much about the seen and heard as about the unseen and unheard. In grieving, Sharma’s poems recant “love or beauty”; her “hostile little elegies” have “ceased being elegant” (55). Instead, they turn to newly disincarnate remains, the emerging worlds of grief that both demand and evade representation. In “My Poem About Last Sounds,” Sharma notes the sonic shifts that have accompanied her husband’s death, the series of newly loud absences that mark his passing:
I find that the sounds are louder now. I don’t hear you talking to yourself in the hallways late in the evening as you used to do. It was a robbed mumbling that echoed. Your drink, your vices, the privacy which you spoke to a mute night. I noticed after you were gone that there was no more aurality that started toward a finishing tension: a drone drowned in hollow floors, in a sunburned house, in one now planted with proprietary neglect. (37–38)
Sharma’s attention to change in the aftermath of loss is a claim to life and relations to come. She practices a mourning that insists “closure isn’t closure but openings” (82). As Eng and Kazanjian note in their study, the melancholy of mourning “is not about the foreclosure of the world but rather the potential engagement with the world and its objects.” Sharma’s poems represent an urgent reach for the aliveness of memory, language, and attachment, even as they map her love for the dead. In “My Poem in a Poetry Hole with You,” it’s this love that informs a newfound sense of relationality at the edge of living and dying:
Poetry can be long and ripe, but it can be puny, too. If it’s next to the hole. If it’s too close to the gaping hole. This is now where I live, to have some strength in stronger senses of solidarity. To live away from ungenerous arms that grab for power or believe in power. Even writing to a you is too inadequate for me. We must have a large sack of reciprocity. (63)
Reciprocity names an exchange between worlds, a break in the sequence through which life might feel possible. Sharma’s poetry represents a quiet upheaval of elegiac form, an aesthetic fracture in which a mourning commons supplants any singularity of address. In sequencing the “question of what collectively crushes” (60), her poems make something vital and communal out of loss. Her grieving resists containment — in dying, in death, in anticipation, in retrospect. Poetry cannot seal it in form or figure. But where Sharma’s experiment in insufficiency reveals a failure of representation, it also glimpses an inchoate, collective, alive world of remains. For a moment, the enclosure cracks.