Grief Suite

By Bobbi Lurie

CW Books
April 2010

Reviewed by Lisa Flowers


Bobbi Lurie's Grief Suite is not one of those Inanna's descent chronicles that end, necessarily, in newly acquired power. Rather, in this bitter, cosmotellurian chronicle of suffering there are sudden buddings where "every blossom becomes" the departed, "every branch/green leaf there along the way". Trees outside a hospice window fill the eyes of a dying mother with green; "our genetics are against us," says a dubious surgeon. "A rose hip by any other name…" Increasingly, the metaphor of renewal is indistinguishable from the delicate pink flowers of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" pod people beautifying a garden on a soft spring day, just before the human being they will appropriate and destroy drifts peacefully off to sleep.

"Our deepest sufferings are almost impossible for us to express by deliberate means," claimed Ted Hughes, and Lurie, too, reminds us that "a word can't come near the thing it stands for." Whether Nabokov's "aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art" are, finally, so limiting is up to the reader. As it is, Suite does all anyone can in the face of the unspeakable: describe the experience of grief without attempting to attribute any higher meaning or solution to irretrievable loss. The hope is in the poems themselves, which climb up their maker's own high tower of language like ivy up the hair of an unsuspecting Rapunzel, unlikely rescuers.

Suite begins on a note of expansive if agonized freedom. The opening poem, "Traveling North", drives across the page in language that becomes more and more hypnotically metronomic as it goes:

Though you are dead now. Though I walk covered in dust through this strip mall in Iowa. I remember the collection of tendencies that led me here. The flat landscape. The blazing heat of cornfields. The landscape and body are one sensation.

Everywhere the books of atmospheric pressure. This book smells like miracles. That you were the chapter...Your hand reaching out to strike. Your hand reaching up to brush the hair from your brow. I never knew which. I never knew when. Your hand.

The cornfields are memories. You can not remember anything. The road is filled with dust haze. Your life is. Your death. I can not find it in this landscape...

Though you are dead now. Though your hand would reach to strike. Though your hand would reach up to brush. The hair from your brow. Though light penetrates this. It is flat. It is frozen in self-image…The atmospheric pressure in the vicinity of living.

"The atmospheric pressure in the vicinity of living" pushes the living closer to the dead, obscurely recalling Faust's "the hyena mashes them beneath": an increasingly pressurized point of contact that, though suffocating, is nonetheless a way of touching the void.

The sorrow of the familiar suddenly made impossible is detailed with heartbreaking fragility in "Feeling Finds Pattern in Language":

Her hands are wings he takes them into his

Presses them with the map he drew on the napkin

Where they meet

Where the coffee sits cold

Because they cannot drink

In "Strange Light", the dying subject has either found a validation for meaninglessness he has been seeking his whole life—and in doing so become a kind of holy monster of self-absorption—and/or attained a kind of macabre, transcendental "peace that surpasseth all understanding". There is an almost oriental feel to this poem, a sense of noiseless geisha steps that recall the bell-like calm before an act of seppuku: delicate, serene, disturbing. The poem feels light as air, as if the cells or motes of the man—a body already scarce-half made up for being half incorporeal—is already lifting off, permeating the air and lifting like pure spirit, or anthrax powder:

I sensed he felt relief in his sickness.

Clearly he was content that the end was near.

And if he was not in fact content with ideas of death, there was certainly a sense of relief that he could present objective proof of his misery to me. "See?" he kept saying, "do you finally see what I mean when I say my life is sad?"


And I felt bad not only for his sickness but also for the fact that he found happiness through the extremity of failed medicine. I wondered about the emergency surgery, his chest slit open, his ribs pulled back, sawed in half...I could not bring myself to ask.

"I could have been an angel by now," he said sweetly to me when I arrived at his bedside, kissing his cheek. And what struck me was that the ends of his sentences did not dip down into sadness but ended with a lilt of enthusiasm.

It seemed impossible to deny that all the incongruous monsters he fought all his life had been vanquished with his past.

The room filled with a strange light.

I sat there with him all night, watched him, breathing serene, machines beeping, drips dripping fluids into his arm, feeling he was happy and that I was happy too, in the stark, strange room.

The "happiness" described in the final stanza is not contentment so much as a white flag, an indoor drift of snow, an ethereal stupefaction. The vibe calls up Plath's magnificent, nearly weightless poem "The Surgeon at 2 am", in which "the angels of morphia" float patients "an inch from the ceiling." In other Lurie hospital poems, like " Your 'I' So Much Like Mine", lines like "resting in bed/she spreads her perfume like a rumor/which mingles with the medicines inside" evoke "while the king was at my table, my perfume spread its fragrance" from "The Song of Solomon"; also the "scattering of perfumes" from Rimbaud's "Illuminations".

Eventually, clarity starts to seep through the oblivion of shock like Ezra Pound's "little splotches of color." There is a scene in a restaurant when the survivor's deathbed vigil erupts in a rainbow of hallucinogenic radiance, a feverish kaleidoscope that fades almost as soon as it appears:

The restaurant the daughter frequents is a delirium: Thai green curry with Japanese eggplant, red potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, shitake mushrooms, zucchini, pineapple rice, a glass of chardonnay... The blue room fills like rapturous destiny, unseen but felt in the crest of it, an ache in the chest. Colored doilies stretched across the ceiling, bib lettuces, green papaya...The breath of the restaurant will not leave her alone. The insistent forks and knives, the umbrage of her purple blouse, the umbrage of violet. Each tile on the wall, each chili hanging from the ceiling speaks the last hours without the daughter, not waiting the absence of light inside the dying body to speak its end. The daughter waits for a sign, waits for illumination, waits to be carried past. But what she sees for a moment as "rapturous" turns out to be nothing but a yellow menu left sitting on a chair.

Further on:

In a dream the daughter sees her arms are older than the mother's. The sunspots proliferate…the shock of the mother worse and worse...the mother forgets her life completely, but even in the midst of her absence, even in the gap of her forgetting she says to the daughter, I'm still myself. It's true. Her hands are the same, hair, mouth, same. Teeth are replaced. Still, the smile is. Same...the mother thinks the daughter is the mother and the daughter like a prince hopes to wake the dream

Why shouldn't such miracles be, the daughter materialize into the prince who kisses her mother awake, at the lovely end of this excerpt? In dementia the identities flow like synesthesia; "in a dream you are never eighty," wrote Anne Sexton.

Most of the images in Grief Suite are terrible: black spots of cancer "like a small boy pointing a magnifying glass to an insect/interested in the way the body burns"; "what early isolation [death] brings"; "the scent of urine rising up from the beautiful steps/safeguarding the ruins." But there is still—at least in the thaumaturgy of poetry—the implication of those steps as a kind of Jacob's ladder, a stairway to heaven. Though Lurie's speakers are sometimes steeped in bitterness and self-pity to the point of almost vexing distraction, they are redeemed in that (paradoxically, by way of the same defiance) they never succumb to validating the darkness they record. Come what may (and, eventually, will), Grief Suite is a generous, often mesmeric, personally courageous manual for survival.