Reviewed by Rebecca Morales
Claudia Keelan's style of mourning is unique. Her new collection, Missing Her, digs deeply into loss and regret, but never loses its energy in misery. It's personal without being confessional, and social without being general -- the kind of lament that's free from self-pity. Keelan's speakers tend to regret the inevitable, mourning for their futures in advance. She explains this removed but emotional style in the beautiful, philosophical poem "About Suffering They Were":
I believed the linguist
On the radio who said words are most interesting
When they indicate something not there,
Something not inherently in or of themselves.
Freud thought of writing as the voice of an absent person.
Thus, Keelan writes elegies of missing, but without a direct connection to that which is gone. More than to the absent, the reader feels a connection to the very process of missing. This lends Keelan's elegies a universal quality -- the reader can't always follow the literal progression of her mourning, but the nostalgia is so well articulated that we cannot help but catch it.
The collection starts off with a bang: an introductory poem called "Came Capsizing the Human Boat," scattered down the page so it evokes falling, talks about the earth in ethereal and mournful tones:
Once I had a name
Lost it with my bird
Capsizing beneath your heavens
Our own gods lost in the passage
Your heaven was global
It was full of images
The earth was one of them
The tone drops back a notch in the first section, composed almost entirely of "Little Elegies" which are more introspective and musing. These elegies express regret more than woe, not just for what is lost, but for what things have become. There is a sense of inevitability to this loss, as in the prose poem "Mary Wasn't Sure," about the Virgin Mary's apprehensions during her pregnancy: "No, she saw it all, she knew it all already, and so did Jesus in his baby sleep, dreaming himself the dead man his mother would hold forever in her lap."
Held together by its elegiac theme, Missing Her is a mishmash of Keelan's unique viewpoints. Her style is often unusual, combining aspects of the fresh and the perplexing, like the charmingly odd "Pity Boat":
So I'm lying
Next to William Blake
In a big rubber raft
& he's teaching me how to love
Being dead. A slow study,
I fling my arms
After every cactus we pass.
"You're dumb, Claudia," Blake says.
"I am not," I say and poke
Poor William Blake
With a gun.
She writes in this imaginative and irreverent style about Antigone on a billboard, about tsunamis and God, and about a Vietnam War general. There's a tender poem that depicts her son playing the famously violent videogame Grand Theft Auto; a "translation of the film The New World directed by Terrence Malick" that toys with line, rhythm, and sound; and a fractured meditation on perspective as she views a work of interactive modern art.
The strange and wonderful "Everybody's Autobiography" is at the literal and thematic center of the book. "This is the autobiography of everyone because all lives and books begin and end," she writes; "This is the autobiography of everyone / and is for all of us still alive in the broken middleness, // mouthing our stories." Keelan credits our formation to Lenin and Disney and oil companies in the Gulf, and our slow destruction to the death of her father, the Southern Pacific Railroad, and 9/11. Tracing life through hospitals and crises and art, she is interested here not in loss but in the messiness of our "middleness."
Keelan's work is at times difficult to follow, skipping from French philosophy to popular culture, and from the general to the very personal. Each image, however, is firmly drawn, counterpointing the rapid shuffling of images with a sustained clarity. This can be disorienting, but also exciting -- her poems never stop moving. Overall, Missing Her is a post-nostalgic meandering through life, more concerned with the way things aren't than the way things were. At its frequent best, it is arresting, original, and a pleasure to read.
Books mentioned in this post