Kristin Prevallet’s [I, Afterlife] [Essay in Mourning Time] is one of the most fascinating and powerful elegies I’ve read in awhile. Part poem, part essay, occasionally a work of visual art, I, Afterlife gathers and revises a series of pieces written from 2000-2006 as a meditation on the death of Prevallet’s father. The book engages readers on the level of cultural theory, aesthetics, and individual emotion without any of the three dominating the others. I, Afterlife succeeds both as an elegy and as a work that questions the structure and content of elegy.
Elegies are often vexed by the issue of the meaning they make of the death of the person or people that prompted the elegy. That a person in pain would look to make sense of that pain seems human and unsurprising. But as Prevallet suggests throughout the book, an elegy that wraps up the problem of meaning too neatly is less likely to be making sense of loss than to be imposing sense upon loss. Hiding loss through incantations of meaning may inflict a further sense of loss, one made perhaps more devastating because it remains unacknowledged. The attempt to fill in loss, to make the pain of absence go away by putting some kind of presence in its place, especially perhaps the presence of elegy itself, is both central to the drive of elegy and also a great risk:
“Never believe maxims because all they do is comply with a sentence structure that is formulated in such a way as to come off as assured, wise, and mentally strong; they give those looking to fill empty spaces with words something to read.
Believing that holes can be filled with language is dangerous—only space itself occupies empty spaces.
So with this in mind, beware of being absorbed by an essay that is grieving, because you will lose your place and be eradicated...” (10)
It’s easy to imagine that being aware of the limitations of elegy might lead to a distanced, purely theoretical approach that avoids the pain that prompts elegy in the first place. But while Prevallet remains committed to exploring problems in the concept of elegy, she doesn’t shy away from the pain that led her here:
“Note that because certain words are removed from view, certain words therefore appear.
The words that appear important to you are the ones you should follow.
Angles are sharp and part of the line.
Don’t turn corners too sharply or you might run over something you once loved.
I remember when my father was happy, and I remember when he began to disappear.” (8)
As involved as this book is both with theories of elegy and the real pain of recent loss, Prevallet also approaches these concerns through a number of aesthetic lenses, recognizing that how we write about loss and what can be said of it is an issue that’s crucial to confront when through writing we try to understand someone’s death. These works, mini-essays, poems, and brief narratives by turn and in combination, always show us a writer coming towards loss again, wondering how to approach it and express it without believing that the expression can replace it or make it go away.
Never is that issue made more clear than in the works of visual art and accompanying text in the section of the book called “Crime Scene Log.” The visuals are abstract, dark, murky, void of clearly seen objects. The caption-like texts that accompany them consistent of flat, practical statements from the police report of a scene of suicide, phrases such as “Fire/Rescue accessed the vehicle by breaking out the passenger door window with a spring-loaded punch’ (21). In juxtaposition, the visuals and captions release upon each other, and upon readers, interacting senses of absence amid a search for meaning. The emotional meaninglessness of the objective facts of the report cannot begin to reveal the emotional conditions that they are at least partly expected to uncover. And the palpable sense of physical presence created by the concrete fact of the visuals crumbles as one looks in them for something specific to hold onto other than shades of shades and the emotions implied by them. Facts that cannot reveal what happened; texture and mood without defined object. Both seem to promise, then to deflect, access to the truth.
When the cause of death is suicide, as in this case, the need to uncover the truth can see particularly pressing. Trying to understand the reasons that prompted suicide seem unavoidable. At the same time, those reasons are always some combination of unsurprising (depression, a reaction to the medication for depression), however troubling, and unknowable, since it’s impossible to recreate what a person must have been thinking. What Prevallet understands though is that the reasons a person commits suicide doesn’t necessarily make that person entirely different from us, but in many ways shows their likeness to us:
“I too am occupied by all the questions of my father, and like him I wonder if the void is too great, if time is too vast, if humanity is too imperfect; and like him I sometimes wonder if it isn’t all remarkably futile, if enduring the persistence of fear and disappointment in our lives makes sense in the quest for an overall purpose.” (31)
Prevallet knows that loss can also be a source of creative energy, that something will always be made of it, but that what that thing is and how the creator feels about it is related to the issue of how the creator who grieves continues to live. She explores this problem in relation to the concept of the shrine. As she notes, the concept is well known to psychologists, so much so that a handout that the police give to the grieving about how to respond to their grief features a section on shrine building “which stated that in order to get through the twelve stages of grief, with maximum efficiency, one should dispose of any shrines” (58). The implication is that a shrine holds on to grief, tries to make it concrete and unmoving in a way that can trap the person who makes it in an unchanging grief that will prevent them from engaging with other parts of their lives. And Prevallet admits that a shrine can indeed do that, while she also questions notions of progress-oriented efficiency that the idea of “twelve steps” implies; mainstream psychology seems to teach that grief, like alcoholism, is something to overcome. The question for Prevallet becomes how to acknowledge the ongoing and evolving nature of grief without getting stuck in a static representation of it. The result is that she makes a shrine, but in this case one “Which has no closure. Which is constantly being rearranged” (58).
It feels odd to review a book of elegy, even when it’s as powerful as this one. The reviewer can easily turn into a voyeur experiencing fascination at a person’s pain and extend that voyeurism by suggesting the book to others. Promoting a work of elegy seems perverse. Yet [I, Afterlirfe] [Essay in Mourning Time] is a book that has a great deal to show people, whether those who have suffered a similar loss and wondered what to do, or those who have not and for that reason may be even less able to understand how grief changes those who go on living. It has a lot to teach us about what writing is, what it can and can’t do and how it can situate itself relative to traumatic events. What’s remarkable about the book isn’t always that it provides new answers to the questions raised both by grief and elegy, but that it asks those questions so honestly and thoroughly, revealing one writer’s focused commitment to never lying to herself even at a time when she’s searching for comfort.