Death, Parents & Children: A Review of Joyelle McSweeney & Dilruba Ahmed’s Newest Poetry Collections

When my father died in 2015, my grandparents were suddenly left without their son. I often wonder what the difference is between grieving a child and mourning a parent. “There’s nothing so horrible as outliving your child,” I overheard my Nana tell a friend. “Losing a parent young is one of the worst things that can happen to a person,” my sister explained to one of her friends during another occasion.
 
I can’t find the words to describe it, but both bereavements appear so opposite to one another yet seem like mirror images at the same time. The loss creates a tragic symmetry: My Dad held me as a child the same as when my Nana held him during his infancy. My Nana directed my father’s school plays, and when he grew up, my Dad took my class on tours of his workplace. My Nana taught him how to cook fish; he taught me to frost a cake. I remember my father saying Nana gave him the same financial responsibility lecture when he was in college. Are they that different? 
 
Truthfully, I don’t think the experiences are all that different. I especially think this after reading the recent poetry collections, Bring Now the Angels (University of Pittsburgh Press) by Dilruba Ahmed and Toxicon and Arachne (Nightboat Books) by Joyelle McSweeney.
 
The collections, both released in April, deal with the disorder and uncertainty brought by a family member’s death. Ahmed takes her readers through the illness and death of her father. On the other hand, McSweeney dedicates Arachne—the latter book in her duel collection—to her newborn daughter of the same name who passed not long after her birth. The book’s respective structures reflect the circumstances of each loss. Ahmed propels her collection with a long, grounded narrative. Although Toxicon and Arachne also has narrative moments, the collection often quickly transmutes and fractures images and sound between lines. However, I found that Ahmed and McSweeney use many of the same motifs and themes.
 
Death distorts and re-arranges the self and relationships like a pond reflection rippling under the image of a thrown rock. “After the session we go down to the river,” writes McSweeney about her and one of her living daughters. “Is it kinetic or is it fixed. We stare at the other side as if in a mirror, a two-way mirror, which is really one-way.” In this poem “Black Orchid,” the speaker seems unmoored, and desperately trying to explain the loss of her youngest to her daughters and herself. Through mythological framing, McSweeney writes that she and her daughters wish to travel to the underworld and find Arachne. One way to get there is through rivers or mirrors. When McSweeney describes the river as a mirror, she subtly doubles her family’s attempts to contextualize, heal, or undo the loss of Arachne. They directly look at death.

Water parallels the course of grief and understanding. “They found a skull where they were repairing the bike path next to the memorial garden. The bike path was ruined in the flood,” she writes. Water both reveals and steals our connections to the past. 
 
Water, likewise, acts as a portal and representation of bereavement’s ambiguity in Ahmed’s Bring Now the Angels. In “The Water,” she writes:
 
           “Would the waves first open
           and close, filling the gap
 
           with our bodies? 
           Would the children become
           an abstraction to us, as they did
           to those at the mast?”

“The Water” reads like a parable for the transition from child to parent to death. Throughout her second poetry book, Ahmed explores the devastating ways child-parent relationships are revised by the dying process. We see Ahmed step-by-step transforming into her father’s caretaker—giving him coffee and sweets, comforting him, and preparing for his funeral. “You are no longer / my father And I’m no longer / your child,” she writes. “Now, only in the past tense— / who he was, what he liked, / how he // sounded.” With these revelations, the speaker’s identity and certainty shatter. While she presents herself in the traditional role of knowing parent to her children, she later admits not being sure of her father’s fate. Still, she wants to believe in something that “rises from mist / when a body disappears / into the unforgiving ground.” 
 
McSweeney also expresses death shifted her sense of self. “I hated pink / now I’ll / take all the pink I can get,” she writes in “And I Might Find Her If I’m Looking Like I Can.”
 
In my experience with mourning, this is the most horrifying and reoccurring reality. You must reckon that there is a chance you will never meet your lost loved one again, no matter what you believe. You must reckon that everyone you know will eventually be “rendered invisible” with time’s passage. Once the recognition of mortality in the wake of death emerges, I’ve found them to be nearly constant. “…so each creature that stands up from the sea / must hold an ampule of seawater / in the smock-pocket of each cell / so each creature rocks with the sea’s salinity,” writes McSweeney in “Vesica Piscis.” I saw my own reaction to my father’s death when McSweeney implicitly places her daughter within her family’s lineage. 
 
           “shards in the sea
            like shards in a grave
            and only a mother could
            sieve them up
            piece these shards back together
            train them up the dead ladder
            dead sons and dead daughters
            dead husbands, granddaughters…”
 
By writing this, McSweeney attempts to raise her family out of, as Ahmed puts it in “I Would Prefer to Die Ahead of You,” the “topography /      so huge / it renders” entire generations “invisible.” I’ve found myself trying to write an afterlife for him in my own writing. If not that, at least, I want to record, he existed at all, even if people don’t know the specifics of his life. I can’t help to think that Ahmed is also pursuing a similar writing project after reading her 2013 NPR interview. “One was that I grew up in a literature-loving household. … My parents are from Bangladesh, which is a country where poetry is very much a part of the cultural fabric.” It is hard to not read Bring Now the Angels as a ritual to remain bonded with her father and her family history. I felt a kinship with both poets with these revelations.
 
This is the beauty of both works: they succeed at making the writing appear deeply personal to the reader. Losing a parent or guardian is a universal experience. Death’s details may vary, but everyone feels that loss of control, the past and all potential futures lost, and the inconsolable and highly individual isolation of grief.
 
Even if someone has yet to lose someone to death, we all undergo loss. You may have yet to lament a parent’s passing, but you know what it is like to witness your relationship with them change as you age. Those without children will recognize being swept away by wild and reactive emotions like weeping or believe themselves “obsolete.”
 
I plan to recommend Bring Now the Angels along with Toxicon and Arachne to my family. Hopefully, reading both these books helps us openly talk about each other’s grief. Maybe, we’ll come to comprehend our sorrow rises from our individuality yet rooted in the same barest and guttural sentiments. I hope these books bring comfort to you too, no matter what you have or have not experienced.

Photo Credit: Death and the Peasant by Romaine Brooks (1930), pencil on paper; Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 1968.90.17.

About the author

Emma Ginader served as the Columbia Journal's online poetry editor from June 2019 to June 2020. She is currently completing her MFA in poetry at Columbia University. Her poetry has been published in December Magazine, The Rational Creature, and The FU Review (Germany). Ginader previously worked as the social media editor and a business/general assignment reporter for the Daily Item newspaper in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. She received her BA from Mount Holyoke College in 2015.

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