Review of Kristin Prevallet’s I, Afterlife: Essay in Mourning Time

Prevallet’s collection of poems, I, Afterlife: Essay in Mourning Times, begins with a Preface that sets the reader up with an expository narrative (in prose blocks) of the tragic suicide of the author’s father. The rest of the book is set up in two parts: Forms of Elegy and The Distance between Here & After, each of which contains a sequence of poems that implicitly responds to the preface and the reaction of the speaker post-trauma. The first part consists mainly of stichic poems, and the second part breaks into both stanzaic and prose-poems.

Interestingly, this book is published by a press that focuses on essays, and the subtitle “Essay in Mourning Time” also indicates a hybrid genre between attempting to prove with rhetoric  (the dedication indicates that all book proceeds go toward treating gun violence as a public health issue) and verse (xi). Prevallet makes “an attempt” to meditate on elegy, the lyric, and her own tragic personal experience. As mentioned in the summary of her work on the book’s back cover, she varies her language between the clinical crime reports and lyricism. Forrest Gander writes of this collection: “In one modality, the grammar is procedural and the speaker approaches a clearing. In another, lyric disrupts and resists closure; there is no arrival. Together, they form ‘a fragmented system of believing.’” This lack of arrival mimics the grieving process, for example, articulated in “Crime Scene Log 11.20.00:” “There is no resolution to this story because emotional closure is impossible./”Nothing” is closure.” (15)

Before the preface, the collection opens with an epigraph of a portion from Alice Notley’s “At Night the States.” I read this epigraph as serving as the beginning of the struggle between the I and reconciliation of how the I regards loved ones: “I believed that out of this/fatigue would be/born a light, what is fatigue/there is a man whose face/changes continually/but I will never, something/I will/never with regard to it or/never regard/I will regard yours tomorrow” (xiii). The epigraph is setting the tone and positioning the I as one who is experiencing and reflecting. The preface poem ends with how the reader should approach the first section: “Regardless, the story has many possible forms and many angles of articulation. This is elegy.” (xii)

The idea of elegy and loss in a state of constant flux, much like the attempt of a writer—or any person—to communicate and articulate, is the lens through which the first section may be read. The poems are constantly exploring the concept of interchangeability, i.e. “One and the other are one and the same” (3) or “I now believe that this world is nothing more than a means of being in another” (6), with themes of what may be under a guise (double agent, homonym, void, restates, state again, etc.) The poetics is also aware of the trend of postmodernists with lines like “I find this last sentence overly dramatic./please scratch it out” from “Will” (7), overwhelmingly taking up the meaning of “Marginalia,” or “I am conscious that I am not using enough nouns in this text” in “Grammar” (13). “Grammar” is one of the lovelier, yet somber, poems where language and grief intersect in considering romantic idea of place in terms of where one may choose to commit suicide. The poetic voice enters in terms of not only a person experiencing loss, but how a writer should approach this loss through art.

This collection addresses the loss of the heroic father figure and restructuring of family history with what is changed from being passed down and what is withheld (what is lost with communication). For example, this is most explicit and prevalent in “Art” when the speaker, after having killed a horsefly, mentions “There is a connection between the insect and my father that goes beyond the physical presence of one and the absence of the other./I know precisely what that connection is./But you, in reading this, may never know. I may refuse to reveal the truth of what I am mourning.” (9) The language used is straight forward and relies heavily on pathos.

The first part of the collection breaks mid-way to pair visual images with collaged text from what I read to be the police report of the father’s suicide. After some prose poems, which serve the purpose of shaping narrative, abruptly comes one of the most lyric of poems, “The Voice Variously Heard.” The author is constantly making the reader uncomfortable in a sort of ekphrasis of shared experience. The second part of the collection is a deeper exploration of the afterlife in connection with the present act of writing about it. The speaker considers the use of elegy and fragmentation or gaps of language in the attempt for reconciliation.

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