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Review | My Dead, Amy Lawless

It would not be difficult to find a book of poetry whose primary theme is death.  From Poe and Dickinson, the poetic line focused on mortality has continued unbroken into the present of American writing.  However, one would be harder pressed to find a book like Amy Lawless’s second collection, My Dead,  that is about the entirety of death—a book that engages not just the act of dying, but the peripheral events and acts of lovers, observers, strangers which become defining features of death as understood by the living.   What is the connection between mourners eating chips, laughing about stories of the deceased and the act of dying itself?  What is the relationship of consumption and exchange between the living and the dead during the process of decay?  What is the level of truth in Shakespeare’s vision in “Sonnet 146”—“So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men, / And death once dead, there’s no more dying then”?  Through a sprawling range of formal actions and redactions, Lawless ruthlessly meditates on these questions of mortal relationship in a way that feels rangy and intricate, but ultimately cohesive in its vision of the small rituals and contemplations which comprise death.

Lawless often drafts and redrafts formal expectations within the four sections of My Dead.  The opening section commences with a set of untitled poems that vary between long, logically endstopped lines and prose length lines.  The poems are primarily composed of a series of dependent anaphoras that seemingly discuss a documentary on elephant mourning: “When an elephant dies/ the lover will approach and stand there. / When an elephant dies he tries to necessitate the other elephant. / This is called searching for meaning” (2).  Here, the book’s obsessions begin to reveal themselves by repetition—the relationship between decay and water, and by extension, consumption of the dead by the living and pregnancy or the desire for life in the wake of death.  Increasingly, the voice begins to confuse and conflate the “I” and the animals: “When an elephant dies/ Please don’t eat chips in the corner after a five hour-long wake” (7).  This negotiation between personification and Chremamorphism culminates in a clarification of the source of the death within the poems.  The source is revealed when Lawless closes her poem that begins “Sometimes a slew of elephants die, / And you’re dealing with what is called a massacre” with “Not recognizing that this cultural artifact will always be the thing I did/ Instead of watch news that day in September” (9).  This is a singular invocation of the collective act of mourning over September 11 within the book, but its placement allows it to ring over many of the personal invocations of death that follow, especially in those pieces that clearly reference life in New York City.  However, Lawless shifts away from this particular meditation by introducing a series of sonnets and less traditionally structured poems in sections two and three of the book.

The second section of the book is labeled “One Way to Write a Sonnet Is to Number the Lines” and the lines are peppered with other seemingly self-evident observations, “This is the method of falling asleep in a state of safety, and this is / falling asleep alone weeping in fear” (21).  It’s as if the poems exist to name or at least identify common features of the world around the reader, much as one would do for a child.  And, indeed, Lawless confirms that observation through syntactic similarities in a later poem, “But now it brings me my own comfort—teaching a toddler how to hula hoop is meaningful.  This is a family recipe for pie dough.  Here is how to wash your face” (76).  What does the infantilization of  the audience suggest?  Or are these imperatives which dominate the second and third sections a source of reaffirmation for the narrator?  The answer is never wholly clear.  Lawless also shifts the theme of pregnancy from the previous section to focus on the sexual, but the sexual acts in the book, particularly in the middle sections, are often lurid or unproductive.  One poem on giving head in a portico ends in this particularly unsavory image: “I stroked it, your eyes appealed.  First, I picked off a fine piece of crust” (47).  My Dead would seem to suggest that the sexual acts that surround mourning are more intended for a personal reedification that for the speaker is ultimately unsatisfying.  Perhaps the same is true of the imperatives.

The third section returns the speaker’s meditation to animals, but the formal designs are totally different.  It is the lone section that utilizes varied titles, and the line breaks often cut on prepositions or pronouns or moments that feel like unnatural caesuras.  The section abandons many anaphoric structures, so that the poems seem to hover on and rotate back through topics—sexuality, the intertwining circle of consumption and decay, the socially expected relationship of the living and the dead.  The long poem “Barren Wilderness” further confounds the relationship between the killer and victim.  In one particularly striking moment, Lawless writes, “it’s difficult to imagine / how scared the animal must be/ last scared glare / long burrowed teeth/ head pulled away/ and only a psychopath would want to do this stuff/ so I’m wondering whether a wolf is a psychopath” (41).  Though the ending is seemingly nonsensical, it highlights a fundamental problem with imposing human taxonomies on the world around us and the natural processes that move through it.  One cannot help but question what taxonomies are unnaturally placed on death itself.  Here, the author ramps up the connection between consumption (in particular the act of cannibalism), excretion, sexuality, and death.  Bullets hitting skin are compared to “the sounds women’s mouths make when pounded too hard / during love-making” (48).  A poem called “Cannibal Wedding” blurs love and death when it ends “She was the one person whose heart needed to be eaten the most” (50).  Here, form mirrors content as Lawless works to circle and engage a slew of seemingly incongruous themes bound together in a fractured landscape on the page.

If, as Shakespeare suggests, it might be possible for the elite few to feed on death, who feeds on us, what about everyone else?  “Fear of death is why women wear makeup, why men wear toupees, why the young dance, and why we, the fertile, pitch woo and do things with bodies to other bodies that involve sweat and shame and a degree of mental castration” (72), writes Lawless in her final section.  Ultimately, we feed on ourselves, on each other My Dead seems to suggest.  In the final section, a man’s cries after his wife has been struck by a cab become a central refrain, which seems apt in a book about how death and the dead co-opt us and our imagination, how his wife’s passing and the story of their tragedy becomes our own, and how, in the end, it is those disjointed words and memories which grip us.  “Anna I love you don’t go,” writes Lawless, and the words become part of something so different from those that were given to the dead at the moment of tragedy (77).  But that’s the power of this book, to identify, reclaim, and reattribute those relics which now embody death: the documentary of elephant mourning rituals, the DVD watched on September 11, the toddler hula hooping in the grass, or perhaps just the voice of a mother simply saying “hydrangea” (79).  


Kyle McCord is the author of three books of poetry, including Sympathy from the Devil from Gold Wake Press.  He has work featured in Boston ReviewDenver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Third Coast, Verse, and elsewhere.  He is the co-founder of LitBridge and co-edits iO: A Journal of New American Poetry.  He teaches at the University of North Texas.