Laura Mullen’s Complicated Grief is one of the rare books that shows what it’s like to know another person by her thinking, and to get to a kind of clarity we, readers, rarely see. It has moments of beauty, even as it alienates the impatient part of the audience, and it astounds with its rigor and generosity of paying attention.
Mullen uses the versatile and liminal form of the block-like collage prose-poem; neither essay nor memoir nor poem, but a bit of each, these non-fiction, non-poems push the fragment to become fully-formed statements. They also allow disparate voices to interrupt or coalesce and show the motions of the mind.
Beautiful and troubling, Complicated Grief shows us what we may have experienced, but don’t yet know: that all losses trigger all previous losses. The experience of complicated grief is horrendous; if you could solve it by crashing the car into an elm you would. But Complicated Grief seems to distill the thinking-through of thinking and its attendant judgments, hostilities, and critiques into something fresh and entirely a statement of art. It’s unlike anything I’ve read before.
It begins with perhaps its most confrontational, yet nearly academic piece, “Demonst(e)ration”, which among other things sets up most of the “themes” of the book: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a masterpiece of gothic horror and a high water mark of the Romantic period, was a teenage girl’s fantasy about a monster, yet the symbol of gothic horror, the skeleton, is inside us all. The question that keeps coming up for a long list of writers listed in “Grave CITES” is how to use imaginative writing to exorcise this horror, to give it precision or lucidity. A companion piece called “Airs”, a pun on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, is a sort of catalog of some of the film adaptations of Jane Eyre and summaries of the films, but in a way that cracks-open their conceits and limitations. Among other things, Jane Eyre was a psychological novel, yet its romantic plot tends to overshadow what Brontë actually wrote.
Complicated Grief teaches the reader how to read as she reads it. Taking cues from “Airs,” the piece “Read” transforms the fairy tale, Red Riding Hood, into something finally unsettling and nightmarish. It considers aging, psychotherapy, violence, and the act of reading as catalyst for change, or perhaps the result of change.
In one of the most troubling and dynamic of the pieces, “Trust” begins with some of the arcs from “Read” and describes a situation, more than 40 years in the past, of sexual abuse, fencing, power, and loss in such a way that it pushes metaphor, the movement of the mind, into moments of bravery. It uses the rhetorical question as a way to push its statements forward in a way that does not bully the reader. If the purpose of being a creative writer is to cultivate bravery and empathy, then Mullen should receive the Pulitzer Prize. Language is often a set of static and inert objects; Mullen’s writing turns the language to liquid, and moves the past, a wilderness of horrors, into a present moment where it can be expressed in a clear and objective way.
Ultimately, Complicated Grief is about the act of writing: what is it and what is it for? The book demands close reading, and multiple readings. Density is the key word for the experience of this book, but it insists that you slow as you read it.
A recurring idea in the book is the way hybrid forms, or inter-textual language can create meaning from the way these forms make imaginative leaps. For example, Mary Shelley, whose presence begins the book, wrote about a monster who was constructed from pieces of cadavers, presumably retrieved as they were in the 18th century as they are today: from corpses used for medical research. Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died of sepsis in 1797 just 10 or 11 after days giving birth to Mary Shelley, probably because doctors didn’t know they needed to wash their hands. Bacteria spread from the corpses to the delivery room, and killed Mary Wollstonecraft. Complicated Grief seeks to find the invisible spaces, perhaps equated with silence, to make such astounding connections, as the discovery of germs must have astounded people at the time.
Mullen has written many books previous to Complicated Grief. I hope the English Department at Louisiana State University, where she is the McElveen Professor and directs their Creative Writing Program, knows what a pure pleasure and intellectual experience this particular book is.
Perhaps what makes memory so difficult and impossible to travail to understand is that so much of it is fiction. That is to say, our telling of the past requires so much fiction to make it sensible to ourselves in the present it’s no wonder the word story is contained within history. Much of poetry is written in a particular style, and much narrative poetry seeks to embody some kind of story, comforting the reader with its narrative conventions. Much lyric poetry seeks to forgo these conventions, so that language can approach the quality of music. Still, the question of thought keeps coming up.
Though it contains no lines, line breaks, or line lengths, and doesn’t contain meter, rhyme, stanzas, or the kind of vertical energy typical of lyric poems, Complicated Grief does something else to mirror the gestures of a thinking brain. To aspire to the condition of thought is certainly a challenge to read and to write, but it engages everything we as readers know. When Mullen can be brave enough to offer a text like Complicated Grief, we must be responsible enough to read it.
Sean Singer was born in Mexico in 1974. His first book Discography won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, selected by W.S. Merwin, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. His second book Honey & Smoke was published in London by Eyewear Publishing. He has published two chapbooks with Beard of Bees Press, Passport and Keep Right on Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water. He is the recipient of a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.