I, Afterlife (Essay in Mourning Time)
By Kristin Prevallet
[Essay Press, 2007; 2012; 2019]
According to Fanny Howe, “here elegy and essay converge leaving only a sense of the poetic itself to comfort a person facing a catastrophic loss.”
Forrest Gander calls I, Afterlife “the quietest and most intimate book by one of our best poets.”
Much admired by her contemporaries for her experiments in poetic form, Kristin Prevallet now turns these gifts to the most vulnerable moments of her own life, and in doing so has produced a testament that is both disconsolate and powerful. Meditating on her father’s unexplained suicide, Prevallet alternates between the clinical language of the crime report and lyricism of the elegy. Throughout, she offers a defiant refusal of easy consolations or redemption. Driven by “the need to extend beyond the personal and out toward the intolerable present,” Prevallet brings herself and her readers to the chilling but transcendent place where, as she promises, “darkness has its own resolutions.”
Prevallet’s spatial relation to grief is sharply condensed in this text as the reader is forced to confront at a rapid pace a movement that took the author several years to express on the page. The effect is startling and troubling; Prevallet’s language tears into the body and then seeks to keep the wound from healing. Visually, the layout of the book is jarring as black pages stand out starkly against the white space surrounding her text reminding the reader not only of the traditional Western mourning color but constantly drawing the eye of the reader back to the illusion of black and white interpretations. As well, the images that accompany, “Crime Scene Log” unnerve and throw the reader off balance. The grayscale, grainy images are presented as though they reveal something about the text directly below them, but what that is remains unclear. Are we seeing the crime scene or the lack of the crime, and what can be contained within these precise squares with their varying hues? Prevallet challenges the reader to “see,” and the lack of clarity is as frustrating as the author’s desire to know her father’s mind the day of his suicide. In these squares, Prevallet suggests that there are large spaces that are neither black nor white, and by looking into them the reader experiences the mind’s desire to make sense where there is none. One may discern a square, a grave, an asphalt lot, an ultrasound, a ghostly mirage, but how does the interpretation match the description of the police officer’s report about the crime given below each picture. Ultimately, the images and the words speak two different languages.
Review by Erik Podhora
In I,Afterlife, the reader is convinced of one’s bodily presence in this world. We know it through our senses. The human actions that we come to after death, like shrine building, attempting to fill space with objects and failing to fill space, and rearranging those objects constantly are the actions that we must use in order to stand in the presence of the void.
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)
Review by Laura Hinton
So the occasion of a death-in-writing and grief as text provides the opposite of a sentiment of melodrama catharsis. It provides a reality – which is always a textual – that compliments, does not assuage, grief. The book opens in a crisp, journalistic prose that compels me to wonder about another’s tragedy – the blood-covered body behind a windshield covered in newspaper – and we are given such “facts.” But “facts” – numbers, Paxil prescriptions, statements by psychological pamphlets designed by government agencies to ease survivors’ guilt — these are not real. They are the appearances of and imitations of a culture obsessed with “Reality” with a capital “R,” a culture unable to face the authentic human experience of illness and death. The plainsong of language in the “narrative” section provides a counterpoint to the rest of the book that will underscore the varieties of grief. Indeed, to continue the music metaphor, grief becomes not one song but an on-going orchestral score, whose infinitesimal movements create a composition in progress: an alternative “text.”
Review by Mark Wallace
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.
Review by Sarah Sarai
My insomnia lies in the distances of grief, the spaces between suffering. Prevallet understands distances which create the sense of glass. “Language fills in the desire to alter time,” she writes. That’ll have to do for a reason.
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