Jake Kennedy on Claire Donato & David Wolach: Burial + Hospitalogy

Burial, Claire Donato. Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2013.
Hospitalogy, David Wolach. Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2013.
by Jake Kennedy

Out of Lispector (possibilities/impossibilities of form)… out of Woolf (some kind of ruthless charting of suffering)… out of Waldrop (a crystalline philosophy of images)… here comes—with power—CD and her debut poemnovel Burial, particularly: a narrator’s lush, extended interior monologue in the (often second-person-dependent) registers of the definitional and the directional and the how-to:

“A morgue” [the book opens] “is an obtrusive building with a roof and walls, like a house, school, store, or factory” (3) or, only a few sentences later, “Repeat the expression: Now the vat is exposed. Not unlike a small carafe that holds only a few ounces of wine, the urn’s translucent vat contains only a handful of ash” or “You may contemplate, perhaps, what it means to ‘scatter ash’” (4);

CD sustains (so successfully) these highly stylized modes (it’s tough as heck [I think] to speak in layered lyricisms and not, eventually, build towards/congeal into the overwrought or maudlin; even tougher, too, to make multiple directive sentences [“do this, reader—do that”] charm and not annoy) if only because of 1) the staggering quality of her perceptions / and 2) the swiftness of her visions (moving from image to image) / and 3) the patience with which she explores her big theme (mourning); here, for instance, CD uses a single image as a means/way into exploring the depths of her subject: “A flower, the seed-bearing part of a plant, consists of reproductive organs, petals, and a stalk, and is typically joined with the end of the deceased’s arm beyond the wrist—the hand—before a burial, at a viewing. A viewing is an assembly where a corpse is kept visible, clear, in full view, so that persons of an area or community may pay their last respects, let go of the dead” (6); I like how this inventory of a flower fuses brilliantly with the corpse’s grip—I like how she guides her reader’s “seeing” in this way; and I admire how CD extends the meditation beyond the simply gorgeous-haunting image in order to pursue her consideration of suffering/loss; so it’s almost as if CD’s limpid technique is better described as one of extensions rather than accretions; such prosepoetry/poetryprose (a method of continuities) is knowingly and constantly chiming with and against her examination of loss/bereavement/discontinuities; and, as it messes richly around with these tensions, it reminds me of another text immersed in a phenomenology of grief: specifically, M. Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary and his comment concerning “the measurement of mourning”; so CD’s fascination, too, is with the scale and scope of bereavement: can it be charted in any way? also, though, she wonders bluntlysuperbly “What does it mean to be dead?”; in the wake of Mark Edmundson’s recent (July 2013) condemnation in Harper’s of the so-called unambitiousness of much contemporary American poetry, CD’s text is a resplendent counter-example; moreover, CD sustains a quality of poetic attention that is arresting: “Four nerves travel into the hand as Four Men travel into the space” (28) [I think—he says—that’s as good as Mandelstam!] or “In the autopsy room, ice is a tempo, a briskness that casts shadows as it melts” (34); that “ice is a tempo” metaphor is so strange and so right in its discovery and is like watching (in its patience and in its detail) a Stan Brakhage film; to some extent Burial is the would-be dialogue of the grief-broken daughter speaking with/to the dead father until/thus the language that CD locates (or maybe even “must employ”) is one of incantation and invention; as CD has it,

“We live on the dead. We walk on the dead. We breathe the dead, we keep the dead” (42)—in this elegiac and yet coursing text, language is mobilized (nobly/anew/afresh) to seek out possibilities of expressing/knowing/speaking/measuring death & grief. . .

Torquing grief, too, in order to know it, is David Wolach in Hospitalogy; it’s (this book is) about or around orin or approaching bodies and it (this book) works in order to gut those who have gutted hospitals and finally (this book works) to challenge and expose those systems that have been set on keeping the body or bodies or identities restricted to categories of the singular or the coherent/pinned ’n’ wriggling or static or ever-busted or just plain down; DW says that,

“writing these letter-notes, scraps, and songlike things, or perhaps the (under)current of chronic illness more so, also developed my interest in what ‘a poetry of disablement’ or ‘disability’ might sound like” (124);

I read the book as a kind of poetry and theory of illness/hospital economies/desire allatonce and thus as an activism, too, as it confronts privatized health care and phobias via inside-outted/outside-inned language/poetry used against the instrumental language of institutions…; “Admission” is the opening poem in Hospitalogy and it begins “The body is an after-word for what has yet to exist. // I said to a friend. I said to a friend I said: how often do you desire to be invisible? Every day, all the time, this friend said” (3); to me, that mind-bending observation about how bodies are regularly (?) constituted afterwards for a living/thing that is always only ever arriving later is balanced brilliantly with the next stanza and its note-perfect demotic repetitions: “I said to a friend. I said to a friend I said”; amazing, too, that the question that the speaker poses to his/her friend is one about longing to be unseeable; so the poems are playfully and urgently preoccupied with the poetics and politics of presence and disappearance; later on in this opening poem we read “The gender is always in and as transition” (6) and DW also attaches this identity-as-dynamism/gender-as-leaving-this-designation-but-not-quite-ever-arriving-at-that-designation (perhaps in this very way) to the possibility of poetry (itself a thing of eternal transitions) as a space of resistance; I think DW’s interweaving of the political and the formal/aesthetical (there was never any real split, though!) is remarkable; here’s how he closes this opening poem:

“ ‘Do you hide there?’ said a friend. ‘In and of the poem, do you hide?’ So far I’ve dreamed twice of Akhmatova’s swans I said. There is only the appearance of hiding. Crouching down in and of an open field, we are naked in the rarity of our atopiary design flaws. The swans, I said. But also the spreading wide of narrow hands” (6);

ok, this section (for me for me for me) is mischievously lyrical and funny as hell and just plain beautiful—“there is only the appearance of hiding,” as if/and the/this poem/poems are points/spaces/places of [potentially revolutionary] becoming/transitions; I should say, too, that DW’s pages are themselves visual evidences of transitions—that is, with numerous pages containing different fonts/font sizes/vertical text/crossed out text they (the pages) sometimes resemble Susan Howe-like assemblages; in an early poem entitled “Poetry Slam: Cardiovascular Unit vs. Oncology Ward” DW includes an epigraph from Beckett: “A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine” (16) and the poem works with this kind of resplendent and harrowing spareness to wonder itself “In what language / Are you” (ibid); I admire (again and again) DW’s ability to (like Beckett) chart despair/trudge through the fucking mud and yet continually to keep moving/open; specifically, Hospitalogy asks us repeatedly to see the lone, ailing, broken, attenuated, andor even dying bodies we encounter and then to confront the economic or social history or political history that lies behind such predicaments: “Muttering when alone some body’s got to pay” (20); for the critical specifics of some of these histories, DW has included a coursing theoretical statement—“Musicked, Acknowledged”—in the back of the book in which he explores the hospital complex, theories of hospitality, the Occupy and labour movements, and poetry as radical organizing; so so so… both CD’s Burial and DW’s Hospitalogy, despite being immersed in themes/issues of trauma and loss, are resolutely optimistic, joyous books; what I note here is that both of these hard-to-classify, genre-bustin’ texts are also determined to locate/approach/know suffering and—most importantly—to see language (torqued, elasticized, re-invigorated) as the sinews in so many urgent and possible collectiveconnections.

Clair Donato reads Burial 


Jake Kennedy is the         though he often finds himself wishing            The Donuts are Nationalistic and then finding himself                                    peace. He currently  in            in  excessive triathlons of lightning which              Kelowna, BC. Jake and his bff, kevin mcpherson eckhoff, think that                    are a-ok.”