Poetry We Admire: Legacy & Elegy
“A word is elegy to what it signifies.”
—Robert Hass, Meditation at Lagunitas
It’s October and we’ve just reached the end of Pearl, my friends and I. The lead-up to halloween grants me legitimacy like no other to convince my loved ones to participate in a slew of horror movie bingo nights, and this may well be the last for 2022. I’m trying to cherish it.
Pearl is a flaneur of her own imagining, a character who longs to escape the ordinary conditions of her farm country life but is bound to them by her twin inheritances, fate and circumstance. She is determined to be exceptional in the same way that the United States is determined to be (the year is 1918, and time will prove neither country nor country girl succeed), though Pearl certainly has an all-American capacity for bloodshed.
The movie’s campy, and full of scares, and awful things happen to good people, but there’s also this pervasive sense of empathy that runs through the work. About an hour and twenty minutes in, the camera, moderately steady throughout the film, comes to rest upon a single shot of our protagonist’s face.
It’s October, I know, and the frame holds steady on Pearl (played, unnervingly convincingly, by Mia Goth). We forget the bingo sheets. For a moment, life’s in technicolor, it’s 1918, influenza is reaving the United States. She’s talking about the things that never happened for her she wished did. The list is long. The shot stays on her for six minutes, which is how long the monologue lasts. She’s trying to learn to make the most of what she has.
The sentiment, at least, is relatable, however misguided the actions of the title character may be. All the work of elegy and legacy, of blood and circumstance, seems to be a learning of how to make the most of what we have. As Hass gestures in Meditation at Lagunitas, language itself is a making do with absence passed, preserved, and yet arriving.
The poems gathered here do this for me. They are poems that say yes to the truths of the world, and make the most of them. I love them for their craft, their music, and for this. I hope you enjoy these pieces as much as I have.
You are covered in dark
from "Song of Grief X"
by Alex Webster in Frontier Poetry
I love the plainspokenness of this poem, the procession of images that unfurl across its lines, “Traceable as stars.” I read poems where I’m uncertain of what could be done differently all the time, but it’s not often I feel so sure, as a reader, that I wouldn’t change a thing. For me, Song of Grief X is one of those poems.
he was his mother’s
child. her name is Sayida. Sayida.
Sayida rolls of my tongue, pinches
from "I Am My Father's Child"
by Karo Ska in Glass: A Journal of Poetry
Perhaps more than any of the poems selected this month, Karo Ska’s I Am My Father’s Child surprised me for its vulnerability and honesty. There is this moment that comes halfway through the poem where the speaker, seeming to address themself, says, “[my father] // laughs, calls himself a confirmed / bachelor, but i breathe a sigh // of relief when he doesn’t deny me, / doesn’t say, i have no children.” Legacy is nothing less than the tissue that connects here to there. As I first read this poem, I felt it bridging this distance so well I knew I had to include it.
I’m a butcher lost in the forest,
reading the stained map of my apron.
from "Condition of Flesh"
by Ioannis Kalkounos in Bath Magg
This poem of Ioannis Kalkounos’ seemed like an obvious fit for this October’s PWA for all sorts of reasons — not only for its gesturing toward both legacy and elegy, but also the horror undertones that emerge throughout the piece (“deer drinking from a pond – // their teeth are pomegranate seeds / rooting fast in fractured bones.”). This is a poem that takes hold of the imagination, invites us to interrogate our relationship with the non-human world, and whose imagery will linger long after reading.
My mother has already done
the impossible, making it here.
What have I done? I want to believe
that I can be someone else.
from "Impossible Deer"
by Susan Nguyen in American Poetry Review
Impossible Deer joins the internal and external world together with such a tender precision it wasn’t until I made it to the end of the poem for the third or fourth time (and it is such a wonderful poem that rereading feels inevitable) that I began to realize just how many themes were being braided into this piece. Ideas of motherhood, daughterhood, what a gift can be, the limits of language, the necessity of translation, how our own instincts betray us, survival against all odds. This poem does so much for the mind and the heart. I’ll be reading it again soon.
Look at where the outline of the water
chases the toes of the land
can you not see it?
from "A Triple Sonnet for the Lost"
by jason b. crawford in Honey Literary
crawford’s poem begins with light (I’m one of many with a weakness for all such work) and digs immediately into the materials signifying elegy — skulls, husks, tails belonging to animals driven near extinction by industries whose existence was predicated upon the annulment of life: rapid agricultural expansion in the West, poaching, the fur trade. In this way, from its start crawford’s triple sonnet pulls me, “spiraling backwards,” into history, to a place where legacy and elegy exist as one.
Techniques come and go in the poem, appearing, asserting themselves, then giving way to something new. The use of slashes appears suddenly (“a boi/a dress/a frozen tongue”), then of caesura “to hold them close, wield them”), and, at the end a quoting (“‘we are free’ ‘we are free’ ‘we are home’”). This poem isn’t afraid to take risks or break cycles. And, it seems to suggest, neither can we be if we wish to end where this remarkable piece does, home, free.