Principles of Economics
Reviewer: Maria Rouphail
In Principles of Economics, Kristen Case explores the personal dimensions of grief stemming from the deaths of her father (a prominent economics professor who succumbed to Parkinson’s disease) and, apparently, an unidentified beloved.[i] This collection is ambitious and substantial. And Case clearly has talent. In view of her intention, I would like to place Principles of Economics within a larger literary category I am calling “Grief Performance.”[ii] Traversing a number of genres and formats, including social media, the performance of grief encompasses various articulations, from the traditional elegy to memoir and the blog.
As the poet Edward Hirsch has noted, writing effectively about deep personal anguish requires a measure of remove. One is hard-pressed to write cogently about a grievous loss while in the roiling throes of it. An example of a well-executed literary grief project in verse is Gabriel (2014), Hirsch’s own searing account of his son’s unexpected death at age twenty-two. This book-length poem, which Eavan Boland has called “a masterpiece of sorrow,”[iii] opens starkly:
The funeral director opened the coffin
And there he was alone
From the waist up.
From the first to the last triplet, Hirsch’s howl grants no reprieve from a parent’s nightmare of outliving a child. We feel a father’s outrage, longing, confusion, and fierce love. And yet because they are contained within the perimeters of unrhymed three-line stanzas, these cyclonic emotions attain exemplary coherence and plain eloquence. Here is Hirsch’s reflection on facing the day-to-day without his beloved young son:
I did not know the work of mourning
Is like carrying a bag of cement
Up a mountain at night
Look closely and you will see
Almost everyone carrying bags
Of cement on their shoulders
That’s why it takes courage
To get out of bed in the morning
And climb into the day.
Prose versions of literary grief performance include Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) and Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story (2011). Most recent is Lisa Appignanessi’s Everyday Madness, which appeared in 2018. Critics have found much to commend in these memoirs by successful older women reflecting on the loss of husbands and the resulting life upheavals. But within these particular prose works, critics point to shortcomings in voice, point of view, and emotional engagement.
On Everyday Madness, for example, Rachel Cooke comments, “Appignanesi’s book fails by taking the reader close to her grief, with all the airlessness that implies, and yet not close enough; something about her slippery, inexact prose bred in me not understanding, but a feeling of distance.”[iv]
After all, says Cooke, “Writing about grief is inordinately difficult; only the most exceptional writers are able to do so in such a way that it seems at once familiar and uncanny.”[v]
About Appignanessi’s “blurred picture,” Rosemary Hill observes that the author veers abruptly from personal narration (where she finds the writer to be most compelling) and into psychological and political simplifications. Of the latter strategy, Hill says, “Quite where the reader comes in is not so clear […]. The reader who finds no parallel to these dicta in her own experience can only silently demur.”[vi]
It seems to be true that while distance is necessary for the literary performance of grief, too much of a good thing is too much. This must be the judgement on much of Case’s project. By no means a failure—indeed, there are spots of brilliance—Principles of Economics often displays an excess of self-consciousness, an effect flowing from the poet’s strategy of aural montage and allusive artifice, as well as from her preference for the logic of nonlinearity. Case is fond of displaying her obvious literary and musical knowledge, but she gives this erudition negligible relevance to the intimate personal events at the core of the collection. The result is an overly aestheticized version of the “threshold event” that death happens to be in fact for most people, as it certainly is for the poet Hirsch. As well, the general architecture of the collection is itself indicative of decisions favoring aesthetic effect over meaning. Its six sections are structurally puzzling and in the case of Section III, “Dimuendo,” visually daunting.
On the other hand, and to her credit, Case succeeds on the level of shared feeling in such individual poems as Section V, “Legato” or Section I, “A Crown for Whatever Has Fallen,” where she writes directly and concretely about the human situation: “In the early years of his disease, my father compensated easily, switching from a long to a short game in squash, and from blocky all-caps to a fast and loose cursive.” And later: “A tremor is a kind of occupation.” And towards the end of the section: “In the last hours your whole body convulsed, and this was followed by something that looked like calm.” And the last line: “The night nurse knew but was circumspect.”
But these and other multi-sectioned poems are studded with random pronouncements that give the impression of an academic paper. Some are contextual non sequiturs, as if the non sequitur were an aesthetic value in itself: “The couplet articulates the total cancelation of a long inventory of debt in a single gesture of thought, as if by magic.” And: “Kensosis is a good way of thinking about hollowness, though I don’t believe in god.” And: “With a dying person as with an infant one makes oneself hollow and without thoughts.”
These sorts of locutions occur throughout the collection. The best writing can be found in shorter pieces, such as “Hollowness,” which I quote in part:
If you wake with it, make your body into a surrounding so that its edges meet the edges of yourself and become a shape. It the edges burn, imagine a refinement through heat […]
The “Benediction” poems (Sections I, II, and VI) and the long and quite marvelous sequence comprising the whole of Section V, “Late Work,” a riff on Paradise Lost, are incandescent. Among Case’s many strong and poignant statements includes the memorable, “How difficult it is to accept love.” Would there were more poems like these.
All of which brings me to this reflection on economies, infants, and kenosis, a term Case equates with hollowness. Without adverting to its technical theological usage, kenosis basically means “self-emptying.” Now I write this review aboard a British Airways jet from Zagreb to London. In the very week of my visit to the Balkans, a boat carrying sub-Saharan refugees capsized between the Libyan and Croatian coasts. I don’t know whether women and children were among the dead. But they have been victims in too many scenarios like this one. What drives mothers to flee with their babies to an angry ocean? Fear of death at home? The demand for a just future for the children? I can’t escape the utter profligacy (rather than an “economy”) of love that recognizes no balance sheet. In gestation, birthing, and feeding, kensosis is the equivalent of the constant self-emptying that builds up the body of the child, and by extension the future. No hollowness here; only primordial eucharist, the ur-type of fearless generosity. The inner eye of imagination can see to this deeper truth. Poets can learn its value, it seems to me. Before our own dying, we should certainly try.
[i] The Boston Globe, February 21, 2019.
[ii] Perhaps the phenomenon of publishing such intimate personal grief in the genres of the memoir, the diary, and the blog stems, as many have observed, from the attenuation in the developed industrialized world of many traditional forms of shared ritual mourning.
[iii] The New Yorker, July 28, 2014.
[iv] The Guardian, September 16, 2018
[v] The Guardian, September 16, 2018
[vi] The Guardian, September 14, 2018.