The poetry of grief: Loss Sings by James E. Montgomery

Grief and loss has its own language, one that cannot be forced, one that is found waiting when the mourner ready. That is the experience recounted in the 32nd addition to The Cahier Series, a collection of short meditations published by the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris in association with Sylph Editions. Each volume pairs an author and an illustrator or artist, and examines some aspect of the intersection of writing and translation, allowing a broad scope within which such ideas can be understood and explored. As such, each cahier opens a door to a different way of engaging the world.

James E. Montgomery’s Loss Sings is a deeply personal essay that owes its genesis to tragedy. On 24 August 2014, the distinguished Professor of Arabic’s seventeen-year-old son was struck by a car when walking with some friends in the city of Cambridge. He suffered what were described as “life-altering injuries.” The driver was uninsured. Suddenly his family’s world was forever altered as an entirely new set of realities, concerns, and anxieties came into play. The young man with a promising future now faced a life of serious physical disability, marked by increasing pain, decreased mobility, and the need for ongoing care. As surgery, rehabilitation, and the detailed record keeping required for legal purposes began to shape Montgomery’s life, he discovered an unexpected appreciation for a cycle of Arabic laments that had long left him unmoved and indifferent. In the early months after his son’s accident, a personal translation project involving these poems emerged. Three years later he recorded his reflections on his son’s injury and his thoughts on memory and the articulation of loss in a series of dated diary entries. Presented together with a selection of his newly translated verses, the present cahier was born.

The poems at the centre of this fascinating account, are the threnodies of the seventh-century Arabic poet Tumāḍir bint ‘Amr, known to posterity as al-Khansā, a woman who composed and sang hymns to the loss of her two brothers in battle—more than a hundred wailing odes that were memorized and passed on for two centuries before they were committed to writing. Although Montgomery had taught these well-known elegies for three decades, through significant losses and traumas of his own including a close proximity to the surreal horror of the attack on the World Trade Towers, he had found them repetitive and cliched. It took his son’s injury to unlock their power. As a parent with a seriously injured child, the rules of order were suddenly rewritten. He realized that his son’s need for assistance would increase as his own physical abilities declined, and when an unexpected potential health problem of his own arose, his concerns for the future intensified.

Memory is a strange place. It is unreliable, pliant, liable – mercifully so. It makes so many mistakes, gets so much wrong. An event like the one I am describing rips to shreds the veil of the commonplace and the mundane, and memory is charged with the task of remembering the future, of recalling the unusual; for such events reveal to us that the future is little more than a memory.

What unfolds over the course of less than forty pages is a multi-stranded meditation on grief, loss, and the relationship between trauma and memory. As Montgomery notes, the confusion that commonly strikes in the aftermath of trauma is a response to the confrontation of previously trusted memory with a “new reality, an unalterable experience.” He recognizes a close analogy in literary translation. In order for a translator to recreate a literary work in another language, decisions must be made about what can be left out as much as what one wishes to retain. With poetry in particular, he says, it may be the only means of transmitting what is irreducibly poetic, and as such, literary translation is “more akin to trauma than it is to memory.” As trauma leaves one at odds to make sense of the world, often bound to a silence that swallows up attempts to give voice to grief, the mourner is forced to navigate a “no-man’s land” between one remembered reality and a new one. Literary translation echoes this process, and through the act of translating al-Khansā’s poetry in particular, Montgomery is able to articulate his own experience of grief and loss through an understanding and appreciation of the very elements that once irked him in these classical Arabic laments.

We are all likely well aware of the kind of cliché, stock phrases, and time-worm comforts that are offered as a solace in times of loss. When faced with profound grief ourselves, there is often a sense that common statements fall short of the magnitude of our emotions. Yet we reach for them—in condolences, eulogies, obituaries. Or worse, for fear of sounding banal we say nothing. It takes the near loss of his son for Montgomery to finally feel the power of these clichés, in the personal and the poetic:

Experience, memory, artifice and art are confronted by the absence of comfort, and earlier versions of a poet’s selves are rehearsed and re-inscribed in memory – but the brute truth of the mundanity of death is the age-old cliché about clichés, namely that, like death, they are too true.

The seventh-century warrior society to which al-Khansā belonged was bound by intense devotion to the cult of the ancestor. Death in battle demanded both vengeance and epic memorial. The latter was the responsibility of women, and her sequence of Arabic keenings—songs of loss— are the most extensive, powerful and poetically inventive to have survived to the present. Her poems are defiant. She will allow no accommodation of her loss over time, her grief stands still, “(h)er doleful, disembodied voice, entombed forever in the inanimate sarcophagus of metre, rhyme, and language.”

Night is long, denies sleep.
.    I am crippled
by the news—
.    Ibn ‘Amr is dead.

I will cry my shock.
.    Why shouldn’t I?
Time is fickle,
.    Disaster shock.

Eyes, weep
.     for my dear brother!
Today, the world
.     feels my pain.

Montgomery’s reflections on his own experiences with loss and the parallels he sees in translation speak clearly to lived grief and trauma. The yearning, aching threnodies of al-Khansā woven throughout, call from the distant past with a pain and longing that is recognizable, real, especially for anyone who is, as I am, still caught in the lingering aftermath of a series of significant losses. But throughout my engagement with this book there was one thought that I could not shake, a possible understanding that the author himself is perhaps not fully aware of. He admits that he is not entirely certain why these ancient Arabic laments finally reached into him when they did.

I worked for years with the survivors of acquired brain injury and their families. I recall one family in particular whose son was injured in a single vehicle rollover in his late teens. His parents admitted at the intake, to a double sense of grief—for their son’s ever-altered future, and for their loss of an image of their own anticipated freedom on the cusp of their youngest child’s pending adult independence. Two futures and their attendant memories altered in an instant. Yet this kind of grief—the grief of survival—is not easily mediated. When the parents attempted to attend a grief support group in their community they were pushed away. “What do you have to grieve?” they were asked, “You still have your son.” There is no accepted ritual or memorial for this kind of loss. With each step through rehabilitation, fighting for funding, worrying about an undefined but infinitely more precarious future, a song of loss sung anew every day. It does not surprise me in the least that a sequence of laments that hold so fast to grief, repeating, reinforcing and seeking voice in the comfort of cliché would break through at this time in Montgomery’s life.

How fortunate that he was able to hear them and feel inclined to guide these verses across the distances of language and time to share with us. Paired with abstract illustrations in black and shades of grey by artist Alison Watt, this small volume speaks to the universality of loss and the longing to find expression through the stories, myths and poems we turn to in times of trauma.

What can or should a story be? The Swan Whisperer by Marlene van Niekerk

The Swan Whisperer by Marlene van Niekerk is the literary equivalent of an impossible space – that is, this 40-page sewn paperback, lush with illustrations by fellow South African, famed artist William Kentridge, contains a tale much larger than its size would suggest. It begins modestly. Subtitled An Inaugural Lecture, van Niekerk opens with a series of questions for her imagined audience:

“What does one teach when one is a teacher of Creative Writing? The true? The good? The beautiful? Should one teach criticism, fantasy, or faith? What is the use of literature? What is its place on the greater canvas of human endeavours? And perhaps I should also ask: Can a story offer consolation?”

Voluminous texts have been penned to examine questions such as these, and yet within the 18 pages that lie ahead once the illustrations have been accounted for, is our esteemed professor at the lectern is planning to explore them all? No, she is going to tell a story, offer a fable within a fable, share an experience that she claims rendered these questions irrelevant for her.

2015-11-11 03.16.04What plays out in this inventive and thoughtful allegorical tale is an exploration of the relationship between language and meaning, meaning and truth, truth and the stories we tell which, in turn, leads back to language. Van Niekerk casts herself in the role of the skeptic. At the outset she is busy with the final revisions on a novel that is almost complete. Around her, the rest of her life and responsibilities have been suspended while she survives on frozen dinners and ignores her untended house and garden. The last thing she is prepared to welcome at this moment is a 67-page letter from a former student who, she discovers, is writing from a hospital bed in Amsterdam. She had recommended him for a student fellowship in the city with the thought that the change of place might finally help this pale, anxious young man finish off his MA and move on. But she is certain without reading beyond the first few paragraphs that there is little hope for him and most certainly nothing in his massive missive for her.

And so it goes. After reading a little further, she tucks his letter into a drawer and forgets about it until an unusual package arrives: a dummy of her new novel in which he has written notes and dates, along with 16 cassette tapes. Gradually she will be drawn into the story he wants – no, needs – to share. Cynically she reads about how her student, Kasper Olwagon, believes he has discovered, quite magically almost, an unusual homeless man who seems to have an uncanny ability to summon swans to himself. He watches the man for a while and ultimately takes this vagrant home. He longs to know how this apparent ‘swan whisperer’ calls to the magnificent birds, but for all of his efforts, Kasper is unable to encourage or help him to speak.

2015-11-11 03.18.55In his long letter, Kasper anticipates his professor’s reaction, but he persists and over time, as she is drawn into the mystery and returns repeatedly to his letter for clues. She reads about his attempts to extract meaning from the murmurings he believes he heard, his desire to translate the language of swans. She hears in his efforts echoes of Afrikaans. Slowly she will begin to understand the meaning of the cryptic note that accompanied his parcel containing the book and tapes. The last words he wrote to her were: “Farewell to the worlds of will and representation!” As readers we are invited to follow the entwined journeys of student and teacher to that place where all of those questions posed at the beginning seem to be archaic, irrelevant. And once those rhetorical questions are left behind, one begins to appreciate the expanse of the impossible space contained in this small book.

2015-11-11 03.21.17The Swan Whisperer is the latest addition to the “Cahier Series”, a joint project of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions. Eminent writers and translators are invited to offer their reflections on writing, on translating, and on the intersection between the two activities. Each volume is accompanied by illustrations. Here, the striking black and white drawings by William Kentridge act almost as a visual soundtrack. His work has a tendency to explode off the page. The images complement the story by exploring the relationship between artists, animals and language. The text is translated from the Afrikaans by Marius Swart and the author.

2015-11-11 03.13.44I have to add that this particular volume held a special appeal for me. This spring I read, for the first time, Marlene van Niekerk’s magnificent novel Agaat. Not only is this a complex, deeply moving story; but the way that language is evoked and brought into play presented a challenge well met by the translator, Michiel Heyns. Not long after this encounter I made my first visit to South Africa and I had the singular pleasure of experiencing William Kentridge’s installation “The Refusal of Time” at the National Gallery in Cape Town. It was, I felt, like a command performance as no one else even ventured into the room beyond a quick glance at the door. Their loss and one of my fondest memories of my stay in the city.

And now I have both artists together in this enchanting and thought provoking book.