Kathleen Ossip’s first book The Search Engine (winner of the 2002 Honickman Prize) and her second, The Cold War (2011), shared her original mind and fresh language combinations with readers. Ossip’s third book, The Do -Over (Sarabande Books, 2015), brings her into conversation with one the oldest forms of poetry: the elegy. In this new collection, she poses a pair of questions that animate her poetic inquiry about death. “How do you stay in heaven?” Ossip asks, “Is it a kind of sophisticated rewind?”
Ossip’s song of grief depicts dying in the abstract and in the specific. Ossip’s point of entry into the particular, indeed her organizing principle, is her grief for Andrea Ossip, her husband’s stepmother. The poet does away with our presumption that contemporary poetry is very often not autobiographical immediately by dedicating the book to Andrea and then opening the book with an acrostic of the dedicatee’s name.
Generally speaking, an elegy is a remembrance for the beloved, which often consists of a lament, orienting the reader to the speaker’s loss, while also denying the loss by rendering the beloved in words. That is, before finally coming to rest in the comfort of the aesthetic creation which itself becomes a substitution for the lost. To fill that role in this case, the poems must be funny, observant, and kind– and Ossip delivers.
For example, a group of three poems, acrostics of her step-mother-in-law’s name, dated May, January, and September appear across the collection. Her opening poem, “A. in May,” takes us through the details of an a day outside with death pending and shows us the cherries Andrea is eating, as well as the little silences that accompany the wait:
One the chairbed, in the sun, she is turning yellow.
She’s part of the carbon cycle. I toe several pits on the lawn.
She’s been eating cherries and has dropped pits on the lawn.
It’s natural to have lost my breath and found several
Pits on the lawn.
While it may all be intimate, certainly not all of Ossips poems are personal, and in a strange way, this is precisely the value of this book. It treats not simply a love obsession or a lost family member, but rather, prompts us think about death in many places and with many differences. There are also acrostic poems that work as poetic obituaries to those who have recently passed on: Donna Summer, Steve Jobs, Troy Davis, and Lucian Freud. In “Amy Winehouse,” for instance, she writes:
Understood by music was how I felt. An escape
So complete it became a song. After that,
Elegy’s the only necessary form.
Ossip evokes the personal relationship we all have with public figures when she insists that she felt “understood by music.” The poet’s conveyance through song reads as a reflection on the potential impact of her own words. There is something powerful about an escape which is not entirely of our own making: a way out made real by the words of others has the great advantage of showing us that were are not alone. Celebrities’ deaths need not be the object only of gossip: they can be meaningful events in our own lives and in Ossip’s case in her own work. Death can help us understand what matters to us. This poet shows us her subject in a multitude of directions. Even animal death does not escape Ossip’s poetry as in “Lyric”:
Squirrels are eating my porch it’s their world too
I call the exterminator
Every day brings filthy compromise
The degree of self-reflection the poet offers us here should turn our heads. These are the words of a person who has tried to cope with death in as many forms as she encountered it and paid attention to the habits of language that surround them. In the best moments in The Do-Over, Ossip brings her acute ear for language to her subject. In section 16 of “What is Death,” the poet interrogates the conversations that occur as death draws nearer.
“But what will it mean for me?” (selfish)
“It’s been more than a week, hasn’t it?” (confused)
“Are you a little sad?” (best shut up)
Lying on her side like a baby or a stone
While elegies often vest the memory of the beloved in an objective correlative, an object that represents the person who has been lost and encapsulates the poet’s feeling about that beloved,
Ossip’s elegy looks for comfort in other places, her questions about death answered by stories, couplets that reflect her thinking, and lyrical observations. These observations connect Ossip to Andrea by relating the everyday to her memories.
Toward the end of her book, Ossip makes such an observation in which she both comforts herself connects her remembrances to the future. “One Short Lyric” reads:
just like a memory.
Hannah Star Rogers grew up in rural Alabama and received her Ph.D. at Cornell University. She teaches at Columbia University and the University of Virginia. Her poems and reviews have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Carolina Quarterly. She has received the Djerassi Artist Residency in Woodside, CA, both the Everglades and Acadia National Park Service writing residencies, and the ArtHub International Artist Residency in Kingman, AZ.