Parental elegy: language in extremis

Extreme: a. n. The utmost point or verge; that which terminates a body; an end, extremity. Obs.

b. in (the, his) extremes: in the last moments or stage of life. Obs.; = Latin in extremis (which is now often used).

Édouard Vuillard, Motherhood


At the tail end of the 1990s, researchers in Pittsburgh coined a new term for grief that was unresponsive to treatments that had had proven results on symptoms of depression: Complicated Grief Syndrome. By the turn of the new millennium, thanks to funding from the National Institute for Mental Health, Complicated Grief research had become a rapidly growing field. In 2009, Dr M. Katherine Shear, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, estimated that almost 15% of the ‘bereaved population’ were affected. A significant majority of those who have been diagnosed with Complicated Grief Syndrome are parents who have lost a child.

Grief is an extreme emotional state, caught between the literal extremity of death — the furthest possible end, or terminus, of a life — and the radical alteration loss enacts upon the lives of those left behind. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a definition of ‘extreme’ as ‘the utmost imaginable or tolerable degree of anything; a very high degree’. The death of a child seems to exceed this extremity: its contravention of what we perceive to be the ‘natural’ order of things — the child expects to bury their parent, and not the other way round — is repeatedly described as ‘unimaginable’. Complicated Grief is often referred to as an ‘extreme’ form of a natural state. The distinction between ‘complicated’ and ‘normal’ grief builds on Freud’s definitions of mourning and melancholia: the former prevents the bereaved party from continuing to live their life. This kind of experience, Dr Shear believes, ‘has no redemptive value’.1Fran Schumer, ‘After the Death, the Pain that Doesn’t Go Away’, New York Times, 28th September 2009 <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/29/health/29grief.html>. Unsurprisingly, this explicit medicalization of grief is controversial, particularly in its reliance upon the language of ‘normality’, disorder, and treatment. Yet Shear’s treatments draw on more traditional psychoanalytic methods: talking cures. In an article published in The Atlantic in November 2016 entitled ‘Is Grief a Disease?’, Andrea Volpe, after observing several training sessions at Columbia University’s ‘Center for Complicated Grief’, declares — with reference to Aristotle — that ‘grief is a problem of narrative’.2Andrea Volpe, ‘Is Grief a Disease?’, The Atlantic, 16th November 2016, <http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/11/when-grief-never-ends/507752/?utm_source=twb>.

Elegy, a term that means in its strictest sense a verse lament for the dead, is in practice applied to the wide variety of writing that enacts the work of mourning. If grief is a problem of narrative and nothing more, then elegy is rendered a purely productive tool; a mediating force to curb emotional excess. This notion of ‘redemption’ as the locus of grief’s ‘value’ is recognisable from early religious elegiac writing: loss in the context of faith contained within it the possibility of resurrection, cleansing and reunion. In his landmark 1994 study Poetry of Mourning, Jahan Ramazani illustrates the crucial role played by consolation in traditional elegy, before diagnosing modern elegy’s tendency to reject consolation: from the late Victorian period onwards, he contends, elegiac writing moves towards the anti-elegiac. This is rooted in a profound suspicion of ‘the psychological propensity of the genre to translate grief into consolation’ — again, a form of Freud’s normal mourning — and serves to emphasise elegy’s position as a locus for an explicit ethical and psychological unease:3Jahan Ramazani, Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), p.3.

Modern elegists are wracked by what I call the economic problem of mourning — the guilty thought that they reap aesthetic profit from loss, that death is the fuel of poetic mourning. They scrutinize the economic substructure of their work, often worrying that their poems depend on death and hence collude with it.4[1] Ramazani, p.6.

For Ramazani, the combined effects of secularization and rapid medical advances serve to defamiliarize death and lead to the increased anxieties of the modern elegy. For those suffering from Complicated Grief, then, the likelihood of writing leading to redemption feels remote. In fact, Ramazani observes that texts of parental bereavement have proven more difficult than others to situate in the consolatory tradition; even in historical contexts in which religious faith encodes death with the promise of the afterlife, elegies for children find compensation harder to accept. The idea of ‘narrative’ recuperation is further complicated by the peculiar temporal position occupied by elegy. R. Clifton Spargo writes of mourning’s ‘psychological trick of time’: elegy feels simultaneously retrospective and preventative, a way of ‘warning without agency’.5R. Clifton Spargo, The Ethics of Mourning (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2004), p.4.

Denise Riley, in her 2012 essay Time Lived, Without Its Flow documents her response to the death of her son, Jacob, in 2008. The title refers to the feeling of ‘a-temporality’ that comes in the wake of such a bereavement.6Denise Riley, Time Lived, Without its Flow (London: Capsule Editions, 2012). Riley rejects the temptation to pathologize, and instead emphasises that this is ‘a state that’s not rare, but for many is lived daily’: it is not that your sense of time is ‘distorted’ but that you are no longer ‘in’ time at all. Riley notes that, ‘if time had once ushered you into language, now you discover that narrative language had sustained you in time’. ‘Narrative’ here gestures to the ‘normal’ chronology of parenthood, and the assumption that the work of mourning will fall to the child. This chronology is encoded in language itself: there is, as Riley notes, no specific term — the equivalent of ‘orphan’ or ‘widow’ — for a bereaved parent. Rather than requiring a narrative solution, then, ‘complicated’ grief undermines our very notion of narrative itself. This is not to suggest that the elegies themselves are not important: throughout her relentless interrogation of the purpose of these texts, Riley refuses to underplay necessity. ‘Wherever is this literature — for it must exist, it’s needed?’

Poetic representations of parenthood converge at the intersection of biographical fact and subjectivity, at the problem of ‘truth’ and its potential for appropriation. Economic unease is linked to what Denise Riley terms the ‘linguistic unease’7Denise Riley, The Words of Selves (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), p.90. of lyric poetry, emphasising its ethical and sociopolitical elements, as well as the difficulty of subjective expression when feeling and language are perceived to be one and the same.8Denise Riley, Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005). If morality and subjectivity are linked, a lyric anxiety about responsible speech is only heightened by the silence of the subject in these parental texts: infancy, as well as death, is a condition that prevents self-representation. The ethical unease of elegy and the linguistic unease of poetry, then, are fruit of the same tree. ‘Unease’, literally the want or lack of ease, exists only by negation; is born only into death. ‘Ease’ relates to work: it can mean, according to the OED, both ‘freedom from the burden of toil’ and ‘comfort, convenience; formerly also, advantage, profit’. The relationship between ease and death hinges upon this distinction. In John Keats’ famous ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, the poem’s speaker relates death to ease: ‘for many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death’. This feels like a desire to be released from burdensome existence: the burden of surviving comes in the aftermath of the death of the loved other. In their concerns about the possible exploitation of the silent subject — dead or living — these texts attempt to understand the relationship between poetic work and the work of parenthood: the productive purpose of writing bereavement.

Modern, anti-consolatory elegiac writing, then, can become a kind of chiastic loop, oscillating between the desire to move on into narrative and a resistance to this reclamation of purpose, of gain from loss. What happens, then, when the death as well as the grief might be termed ‘complicated’? In the decades since Complicated Grief Syndrome was named and Poetry of Mourning was published, advances in medical technology have been rapidly altering not only our perception of death — more than half of all babies born in industrialized nations since the year 2000 can expect to live past the age of 100 — but of reproduction, too. There are endings that cannot be traced to a definite beginning: the loss of a stillborn child, and the loss of a potential child or children through the failure of IVF. As the boundaries of ‘normal’ life shift and change, we can use this anti-consolatory tradition of elegiac writing to illuminate the need for a continued conversation about the intersection of literature and life, science and ethics. The relationship between productivity, parenthood and mourning reinforces, rather than alleviates, the ‘complicated’ problem of grief and narrative.


 There is an ongoing theological and scientific controversy over when life can be said to begin, something inherently linked to the long history of religious and medical control of, and legislation over, women’s bodies. Perhaps because of this, there are differing legal definitions of stillbirth across the world, many of which still place implicit — or overt — blame on the mother. Although broadly defined as a foetal death that comes at least halfway through a pregnancy, in most European countries the definition depends on the child’s weight — usually of 500g or more — whilst in the United States there is no standard definition. Despite a growing movement in several states to change legislation, in the American healthcare system grieving parents are unable to claim a tax exemption on their medical expenses for stillborn children. To ‘claim’ for this death, you need a social security number for the deceased, something that can be offered only if it can be certified that the child came out of the womb alive. It is easy — and perhaps ethically necessary — to shudder at the explicit economics of loss that such a healthcare system insists upon: it is at the very least inhumane and at worst inhuman. A consideration of the relationship between life and cost can, however, subvert some aspects of elegiac unease.

Ramazani convincingly shows that elegy cannot inhabit an ‘aneconomic’ space, depending upon death even as it rails against it. Yet the anomalous space occupied by a stillborn child is by definition situated outside of the human life cycle. In writing about stillbirth, the loss of the child cannot be straightforwardly transformed into a gain because the child has never existed as an independent being within the natural rhythms and processes of human life. Elizabeth Jennings articulates the potentially aneconomic position of the stillbirth in her 1967 poem ‘Child Born Dead’:

What ceremony can we fit

You into now? If you had come

Out of a warm and noisy room

To this, there’d be an opposite

For us to know you by.

The poem goes on: ‘You could not come and yet you go.’ The child is unknowable but nevertheless is mourned: a loss is experienced, despite the curtailed possibility of gain. The final two lines of Jennings’ poem imply that this negation of potential benefit annuls any possibility of solace outside of the work of grief itself — ‘then all our consolation is / That grief can be as pure as this’ — yet this assertion of ‘purity’ is immediately discoloured by the fact that the reader is presented with the emotion at one remove; almost in translation.

Peter Riley, in his 2008 poem Birth Prospectus. The End of Us., also presents stillbirth as something outside our normative construction of time, something impossible to categorise or rationalise: ‘The child dies into what we call birth. / We call it birth and furrow on’.9Peter Riley, Birth Prospectus. The End of Us., published as an ebook (Intercapillary Editions, 2007). Still, the language of productivity is ever-present: in relation to the pronouns that locate them, ‘furrow’ and ‘earth’ inhabit the same semantic field as Ramazani’s concern that elegists ‘reap aesthetic profit from loss’. Birth Prospectus employs the vocabulary of profit ambivalently. It is apparent that a fiction of productive equilibrium is not enough to transform the stasis engendered by the ‘still point’ of stillbirth into productivity. Instead, it is a very present lack: ‘the nothing that accounts for all’.

The title, too, refuses consolation, as the productive optimism of ‘birth prospectus’ is stifled both by the full stops that seal off its movements and by the doubled but deadened ‘us’ that ends each half. This buried repetition of the hopeful collective noun suggested by ‘prospectus’ — the prospects of us — appears to contain its own annulment. ‘End’ can mean both ‘limit’ or ‘termination of existence’ and an ‘event, issue, result’, a ‘final cause’: the end of the child results in the metaphorical end of the parents, but also in the textual issue, a poetic gain. In his essay about the sequence, Riley reiterates this link between outcome and terminus:

In 1975 my wife was delivered of a dead baby girl in Stepping Hill Hospital, which is what the whole thing is about. That is what is announced in poem 1. Poems 1-7 reiterate the event, and the still-born child is the ‘you’ addressed intermittently throughout, the little spinner, the figure of the still point of unlimited potential, the nothing that accounts for all. Everything that is perceived in the poem: land, stars, creatures, everything, is perceived through this death, which guides perception through the world.10Peter Riley, ‘Comment on Michael Haslam’s essay’, Intercapillary Space (October 2007) <http://intercapillaryspace.blogspot.co.uk/2007/10/peter-riley-comment-on-michael-haslams.html>.

This ‘guide’ through the world is present in the sequence’s pastoral imagery, historically common in consolatory forms of elegy. The natural world hints at a kind of restitution in ‘unlimited potential’ as ‘the mourner is thus freed from his work of mourning rather than stuck in perpetual grief, and can re-enter nature’s rhythms of renewal’.11Bonnie Costello, ‘Elegy and Ecology Among the Ruins’, The Oxford Handbook of the Elegy, ed. Karen Weisman (Oxford: OUP, 2010), pp.324–342, p. 325. The poem continues, complicating this:

Because of this (which is natural)

a surplus of energy builds into the

grass and the trees of the forest

elegantly describe themselves as

interim customers, under contract

to the oceanic combine. It all stays.

The move here into the vocabulary of economy and production — as opposed to reproduction — jars, despite the veiling elegance of Riley’s sibilant ‘forests’ and ‘grass’. The child is transformed into ‘surplus’ energy, and even the landscape succumbs to ‘contract’, to ‘custom’, and the dangerous double edge of ‘combine’: whether it refers to a harvesting mechanism or the furtherance of commercial interests, the stability of balance implied by the subsequent ‘it all stays’ does not feel compensatory. The ineffability of stillbirth refuses productive understanding. Throughout Birth Prospectus, Riley is attempting to perform the work of elegiac mourning by transferring this impossible instant into a narrative that he can understand, but the text consistently thwarts its own attempts to seek consolation, and in doing so is a rallying cry of continuing grief. The poem ends, and persists: ‘Still. Daughter, still.’

Karen McCarthy Woolf’s An Aviary of Small Birds, published in 2014, is a collection of poems structured around the death in childbirth of her son Otto in 2009.12Karen McCarthy Woolf, An Aviary of Small Birds (Manchester: Carcanet, 2014). McCarthy Woolf, too, constructs an almost unbearable pun around ‘still’ in ‘Mort-Dieu’:

 Our son

dear God

is dead

and gone.

His tomb

was red

with blood

and warm

as tears.

He was

born still.

Was this

dear God

your will?

Alongside this religious address that questions the purpose of suffering, McCarthy Woolf — a teacher of creative writing — interrogates her own role as a writer. In ‘Of August’ she refers to herself throughout as ‘The Protagonist’, framing her experience as a ‘pitch’ she plans to submit to a publisher at a later date. Again and again Aviary, like Birth Prospectus, repurposes natural imagery to situate loss on the border of birth and death. In ‘Reasons to Fear Butterflies’, the insects are figured as creatures sustained by ‘feeding’ on human ‘secretions’, on ‘sweat, saliva, tears’, before being transfigured into infants seeking nourishment from the maternal body of water: ‘sucking / the sea as if it were a teat’.

This distrust and ‘fear’ applies only to living creatures. In ‘Of Roadkill and Other Corpses’, the bodies of dead animals are something to treasure: ‘After the birth she spends a year and a half taking photographs of dead animals and prizes the most pristine.’ The ‘birth’ is a catalyst for a fascination with the physical specifics of mortality, as the poem unflinchingly describes the ‘splayed’ legs of rigor mortis, the ‘gelatinous web’ of ‘disintegrating geese’ and a ‘flattened rabbit’. In Kate Kellaway’s 2014 review of the collection — referring to the stillbirth as a ‘tragic non-event’ — she states that ‘Otto’s death gives birth to the book.’13Kate Kellaway, ‘An Aviary of Small Birds Review’, the guardian, 23rd November 2014 <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/23/an-aviary-of-small-birds-karen-mccarthy-woolf-review>. Perhaps, but in An Aviary of Small Birds the distinction is not so easily made. The final two lines of ‘Of Roadkill’ describe the corpse of a pony on a road that cuts through Dartmoor, the ‘final’ item in this post-partum collection.

The pony’s legs stick up into the air and a cylinder of dung protrudes halfway out of its anus. The pony’s genitalia are exposed and she can be identified as a mare.

The pony’s prostate position and the ‘cylinder’ of protruding dung recall the visceral realities of childbirth, an image compounded by the gendering of the ‘exposed’ genitalia. ‘After the birth’ corpses cannot be separated from reproduction and vice versa, as even the creative effort of the poem becomes instead a litany of mute, substitutionary losses.


This kind of complicated loss is the subject of the nascent genre of literature that draws on the advances in reproductive technology, and their casualties. Infertility is often described as a kind of bereavement, its failure resulting in grief not only for the child, but for the parental incarnation of the authorial self that might have been. The late Professor Lisa Jardine, in her 2014 final address as the outgoing Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, or the HFEA, stated that her chief regret at the end of her time chairing the Authority was her inability to fulfil her ‘personal mission’ of public engagement, and, concurrent with that, the fair management of expectations:

My personal mission when I took up the post was, inevitably given my interests, public engagement — disseminating as widely as possible both the benefits and disadvantages of all aspects of assisted reproduction. This proved to be unexpectedly difficult to do. There is an extraordinarily high level of coverage of any story involving IVF in the media — celebrity births, tales of miracle babies after years of trying, and above all, breakthroughs in clinical practice which may bring hope to thousands wishing for their own child. This is a sector that trades in hope, and the papers and women’s magazines are full of encouragement.

Both here and later on in the address, Jardine employs the vocabulary of economics, establishing that the currency used by the ‘market in hope’ has a double edge: the trade-off comes when the hope is not fulfilled, and the procedure instead ‘delivers’ — and I think Jardine here consciously employs of the terminology of birth — ‘grief and a sense of failure’.14Lisa Jardine, ‘A Point of View: IVF and the marketing of hope’, BBC News Magazine, 25th October 2013 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24652639>.

This essay is not the place for a sustained engagement with the ongoing ethical debate about the practice and marketing of IVF; it would be foolhardy even to try. Instead, it is this use of ‘grief’ to which I am going to turn. Jardine mentions Zoe Williams’ Guardian article from September 2013: ‘Where’s all that grief going?’ Williams is writing after a visit to the Alternative Parenting Show, a growing event that provides advice on how, according to their website, to make the ‘dream of having a family a reality’. From 2017, the show will be renamed ‘My Future Family Fertility Show’. Williams, like Jardine, interrogates the troubling economy that underpins IVF without ever losing sight of the prospective parents themselves. It is not only possible but necessary to think clear-headedly about the ethical mechanisms of a for-profit fertility procedure, without diminishing for a single moment the children born through successful cycles. Williams first locates the ethical anxiety of IVF within a broader societal moral economy: ‘There is a privatised-gains, nationalised-losses story here, too, of course — IVF treatment creates the pregnancy. Any complications to come out of that pregnancy are then devolved to the NHS’.15Zoe Williams, ‘Where’s all that Grief Going?, the guardian, 27th September 2013 <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/sep/27/ivf-where-all-grief-going>.

The statistics of IVF, tangled up in profit — you are, after all, more likely to invest a large sum of money in a medical procedure if it looks like you have a chance of success — also engage directly with questions about productivity that echo those we have seen asked about the categorisation of stillbirth. Williams quotes Susan Bewley, a professor of Complex Obstetrics at King’s College London: ‘I’ve seen women on the labour ward have two babies at 25 weeks, both die, but they’re counted as live births because they came out alive. They go into HFEA figures as live births’. The language of IVF is the language of productivity — the entire process relies upon the male party, in the early stages, being able to go into a sterile room in a clinic and ‘produce’ into a cup — and this is riddled with the threat of a failure. Bewley, referring to a study showing IVF to be ‘as traumatic as chemotherapy’, states that ‘It’s a kind of death. We have our somatic deaths at the end of our lives, but we also have reproductive deaths’. In Simon Stone’s award-winning new version of Lorca’s Yerma that ran at the Young Vic theatre in London from July to September 2016, the protagonist, played by Billie Piper, reacted to the ‘reproductive death’ of her failure to conceive by committing suicide in her empty flat.

Complex Obstetrics and Complicated Grief: the inability to have a child is a kind of self- bereavement, too. How, then, to elegise this dual grief? As IVF becomes increasingly common, this is becoming a pressing concern. In October, 2016, the Australian writer Julia Leigh published her memoir Avalanche, a slight volume documenting her experiences trying to conceive through assisted reproduction.16Julia Leigh, Avalanche (London: Faber and Faber, 2016). All further references will be to this edition. In recent writing about IVF, the possible children that never materialise are referred to with near-consistency as ‘ghosts’, and Leigh’s work is not an exception: speaking of her desire to use her ex-husband’s sperm, as they had planned to do during their relationship, Leigh writes that ‘Our child clung to me like a ghost.’ Later, once she has made the decision to stop trying, her online search history becomes a kind of virtual revenant, visiting her with adverts for antenatal products, pregnancy tests, breast pumps: ‘I was haunted by the IVF’. In a passage detailing the trauma of her final unsuccessful cycle, Leigh attempts to mitigate the agony of hope by pre-emptively ‘killing’ her possible child:

To prepare for the abyss I tried to kill my baby. I deface the little darling, removed its eyes, eye sockets too (pity the poor mother in Chernobyl whose baby was born with no eye sockets). I shrank and gnarled its limbs. I laid my umbilical cord around its neck like a noose. But it never worked. The childling was always resurrected, smiling, perfect.

Here, the ‘resurrection’ of the ‘childling’ is removed from any authorial agency: unlike the purposive elegy that aims to reawaken the dead, Leigh’s violent imagery attempts to render optimism null and void. There is a kind of magical thinking in this, an anxiety familiar to many: if you imagine the worst, it can’t possibly surprise you — and you won’t jinx the chances of the best occurring.

The counsellor Leigh visits, a cliché made flesh, speaks of ‘the divorce grief’ and ‘the infertility grief’, but never of grief for the lost child or children. Instead, she covers a piece of paper with black dots representing these griefs, before connecting up the dots and turning them into a butterfly. Outside of this episode, productivity is one of the conceptual threads that draw the text together. Throughout, Leigh is open about the costs of IVF, often detailing the precise amount of each procedure, and aware of her own financial privilege in being able to afford them. But she questions the vocabulary that situates the process within a market, comparable with other transactions: ‘Once on the phone a friend unwittingly said something hurtful. I was moaning about the high cost of IVF and she said, ‘I know, my sister had to sell her house to buy her kids’. Buy her kids. Referring to friend who had a heart operation, she notes that ‘No-one ever said he had to buy his life’. Yet Leigh never really allows her work to discuss the potential unease that stems from the intersection of grief, productivity and transaction in the assisted reproduction process. Avalanche is a work of mourning that, despite moving towards consolation in its final pages, never fully contemplates the elegiac.

Rachel Cusk reviewed Avalanche, alongside Belle Bogg’s IVF memoir The Art of Waiting, for the New York Times in September, 2016. Cusk’s identifies Leigh’s need to turn grief into narrative as having more to do with the desire to write itself. Cusk compares IVF to the relatively new academic discipline of Creative Writing and, speaking from the idealised positions of both a mother and a successful writer, questions the effect of this desire to occupy a role:

To be a writer, to be a mother: The more these desires are separated from their object (to be the writer of what, to be the mother of whom?), the more they seem to represent not the reaching out of creativity but the inward obstinacy of personal will.17Rachel Cusk, ‘Rachel Cusk Reviews Two Books about Assisted Reproduction’, New York Times, 4th September 2016  <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/04/books/review/rachel-cusk-reviews-two-books-about-assisted-reproduction.html?_r=0>.

Avalanche, she continues, is ‘a harrowing and profoundly disturbing account of self-immolation in pursuit of an ideal’. Whilst Boggs focuses on the complex relationship between motherhood — what we might term biological productivity — and writing, drawing heavily on Virginia Woolf’s notes on childlessness, Leigh dismisses such concerns out of hand. Being a writer and being a mother, she declares at the beginning of Avalanche, is ‘not rocket science’. Adrienne Rich, in her seminal 1976 Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, describes pregnancy as, for most of history, a kind of ‘forced labour’.18Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (London: Virago, 1976). The organisation FINNRAGE, or the ‘Feminist International Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering’, declares assisted reproduction to be a furtherance of the utilisation of women’s bodies as a capitalist productive tool. These are provocative generalisations, but Leigh’s refusal to engage with the complex transactional, gendered economics of reproduction renders the very work of mourning unacknowledged and devalued.

Cusk identifies the improvements in medical reproductive technologies as the catalyst for a new understanding of what the complicated grief of childlessness can be, and how it can be articulated:

One problem with the discourse of infertility is that it has at its core a non-event. How can a woman talk about or learn from what hasn’t happened to her? The advent of I.V.F. has brought more than new technologies and hope to that expressive impasse: It has made infertility experiential, an active state with its own narrative, its own sufferings and hence — one anticipates — its own wisdom.

This use of ‘non-event’ calls to mind once again the ontological stasis occupied by stillbirth, the ‘expressive impasse’ that heightens when even the most extreme emotional state cannot quite be translated into narrative sequence. It’s true that Leigh’s narrative is, at points, jarringly myopic. Unlike Riley, who explicitly states ‘Never would I compare my state with that of, say, a widow’s’, Leigh does attempt to create a hierarchy of grief, or at least one of guilt: ‘Doubled grief: lost marriage, lost childling. I envied the widows — innocent — whereas I was complicit in my loss.’ Ironic moments like her discussion of her ‘nurse fetish’ fall flat, the explanation of which — ‘“the nurses” were a kind of timeless ideal, swap out one nurse for another and the nurses would remain untouched in their humble glory’— reads like an unfortunate pastiche of a similar section in Gillian Rose’s masterful Love’s Work. Leigh’s unswerving commitment to her own narrative denies her the opportunity to explore the polyphony of other grieving voices, denies her the ethical perspective that comes with empathy. ‘I envied the widows’. Yet her conflation of motherhood with ‘purpose’ is an honest one:

There is a comfort in purpose. Part of me wanted to have a child just so I could have an inviolable reason for being. Sweet purpose. Sweet dark purpose, secret of secrets. A child would save my life.

Whether this ‘purpose’ is rightly or wrongly located in the idea of a potential child is, for our purposes, beside the point. Leigh, who writes at the very beginning of her ‘destined child’, believes that she was supposed to be a parent. The loss of the imagined, desired, paid-for child is, like in all parental elegy, a subversion of the natural order of things. If the child cannot ‘save’ her life, then consolation must be sought in writing: like Ramazani’s identification of the change in elegiac thinking that came with the secularisation of society, medical advances are altering our notions of what life itself should look like.

References   [ + ]

1. Fran Schumer, ‘After the Death, the Pain that Doesn’t Go Away’, New York Times, 28th September 2009 <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/29/health/29grief.html>.
2. Andrea Volpe, ‘Is Grief a Disease?’, The Atlantic, 16th November 2016, <http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/11/when-grief-never-ends/507752/?utm_source=twb>.
3. Jahan Ramazani, Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), p.3.
4. [1] Ramazani, p.6.
5. R. Clifton Spargo, The Ethics of Mourning (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2004), p.4.
6. Denise Riley, Time Lived, Without its Flow (London: Capsule Editions, 2012).
7. Denise Riley, The Words of Selves (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), p.90.
8. Denise Riley, Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).
9. Peter Riley, Birth Prospectus. The End of Us., published as an ebook (Intercapillary Editions, 2007).
10. Peter Riley, ‘Comment on Michael Haslam’s essay’, Intercapillary Space (October 2007) <http://intercapillaryspace.blogspot.co.uk/2007/10/peter-riley-comment-on-michael-haslams.html>.
11. Bonnie Costello, ‘Elegy and Ecology Among the Ruins’, The Oxford Handbook of the Elegy, ed. Karen Weisman (Oxford: OUP, 2010), pp.324–342, p. 325.
12. Karen McCarthy Woolf, An Aviary of Small Birds (Manchester: Carcanet, 2014).
13. Kate Kellaway, ‘An Aviary of Small Birds Review’, the guardian, 23rd November 2014 <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/23/an-aviary-of-small-birds-karen-mccarthy-woolf-review>.
14. Lisa Jardine, ‘A Point of View: IVF and the marketing of hope’, BBC News Magazine, 25th October 2013 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24652639>.
15. Zoe Williams, ‘Where’s all that Grief Going?, the guardian, 27th September 2013 <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/sep/27/ivf-where-all-grief-going>.
16. Julia Leigh, Avalanche (London: Faber and Faber, 2016). All further references will be to this edition.
17. Rachel Cusk, ‘Rachel Cusk Reviews Two Books about Assisted Reproduction’, New York Times, 4th September 2016  <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/04/books/review/rachel-cusk-reviews-two-books-about-assisted-reproduction.html?_r=0>.
18. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (London: Virago, 1976).

Helen Charman is a writer and a PhD student researching nineteenth century maternity, sacrifice, and political economy at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. She teaches undergraduates at the University of Cambridge, and primary school children in Hackney. Her poetry has been published in Hotel and Datableed, and her other writing can be found in The Germ, Dazed and Confused, the LRB Blog and The Inkling Magazine.