Portrait (Elegiac) by Kate Middleton



I have a friend who studies elegy. She collects objects of mourning, has touched objects that have made famous wounds. Sometimes I tell her: I do not know anything about elegy. She refuses this characterization.


When we first met we talked about death, but we also talked about Sweet Valley High, the frozen blonde youths in ever-reinvented California. The competition in the fictive town between “new money” and “old money” (the “old money” seemingly barely minutes older than the new) of the local titans, and the supposedly middleclass existence of the mirror-image twins, the embodiment of vitality. The stories almost painful confections, their mechanics always sitting on the surface. And those twins, anti-elegiac. Their doubleness an essay in possibility, a strange profundity if only taken seriously. Yet this seriousness is almost impossible. Were ever two girls less haunted than these blondes with their eyes—always described as the aquamarine of the Pacific ocean? What concern have they with elegy?




I have a friend who studies elegy. After she wrote about the poet from Needles, California, I told her about my own trip through the town. I didn’t then know the poet had lived so long there—but I knew about the silent film star who moved to nearby Searchlight, Nevada.


The silent film star—the greatest box office draw for a year or two—who moved to a town with no cinema, and slowly went mad. In the local history museum, there is a collection of the film star’s hats. Forgotten in only the way the extravagantly famous can be forgotten, her lost glamour safely displayed. I tell my friend about the hats, and about the machine in the room next to it that once told your fortune for a coin.




I have a friend who studies elegy. She has a collection of butterflies mounted on her wall. I, too, have butterflies, bought at strange, itinerant intervals. The wings are so delicate in life have been preserved, wide-spread. Wings arrested, mid-flight: open to the past, nostalgia for the wind; open to the future, under-glass, forever windless.


Over a cup of tea we list transgressions: hearts split between past and future, between continents. What is a clear conscience? Want riving sense, rupturing comprehension. Elegy not the tear; elegy the brutal gentle suture.




I have a friend who studies elegy. Like me, she has a cemetery full of her name. The generations of the stone stuttering the same letters over and over. Only the script is different. Such places seem like they must always be poorly tended. The last time I visited mine, I pulled weeds up only from the grave that meant most to me. My unaccustomed hands went raw. I imagine hers: older, with weeds more deeply rooted.


The weeds, I want to tell her, are not a form of neglect. (I know she will understand this.) The weeds are a fuller embrace, the dead accepted more completely into the earth. And the soil beats up against the headstones, slowly burying them. We need to put our ears to the ground, I tell her between sips of bourbon. Hear the names sung, subterranean. Hear the roots curlicue into the epithets carved in stone.




I have a friend who studies elegy. She shows me the scars she wishes to fade. I give her concoctions that fade them. She tells me, “I’ll put anything on my skin if it’ll make me pretty.” When she says it, she is almost embarrassed. But she has only said what I am too embarrassed to say myself. The wrong one of us feels shame.


The surface of the skin, of course, matters. You might think that because she studies elegy she has more profound concerns than what it means to be blemished. But at certain moments there is nothing more profound than these blemishes. My friend can quote the lines from all over, the epithets that celebrate the glow of youth, hang them on the deceased like wreaths.




I have a friend who studies elegy. She has an abiding interest in scars: the fact they mark the places of intrusion, of woundedness, or, in the wake of certain events, an absence. Our bodies can be haunted by what has been removed from them.


When I returned from China, we talked about ink and brushes. I brought her a brush made of wolf hair, inviting fierceness with its soft movement across paper, across her own cheek. We sat in a café until late at night with a stack of old postcards, images from the era of the Qing Dynasty, elaborate women elaborately bound by their circumstances. We wrote secrets on these cards, labelled the griefs of these women: the grief of silk, the grief of plenty, the grief of tiny demented feet, the grief of luxurious lassitude.




I have a friend who I studies elegy. She uses hothouse words when she speaks, writes. Baroque adornments that I fear. The curlicues of thought are fevered in her, and I wonder if this pitch is what enables her to dwell with the dead. When I described a new relationship, she used the word ‘cathected’ as if it were an everyday concept. Later I looked it up. Sometimes I think she has cathected with the dead.


When we talk, it is often about the things we find in thrift shops. Our handbags, shoes. We move from talk of the poets to the condition of leather, the designs of some past season. We are never of the current season, always nestled with the used. She tells me she plans to sell things whenever she buys new things, but then can’t. How could she abandon them again?




I have a friend who studies elegy. She once lived in a house with a woman who had lived previously with the ghost of Otis Redding. The woman talked about the lake house Otis haunted. My friend talked about the way he dwells in the gaps of her conversations. To be silent in the house she shared was to invite the story of the ghost.


This was during months with her lover. During months of library archives, museum specimens. Of the convalescence of small truths. Vigil over the artefacts. So lie still. Listen for the churn in the threat that haunts you.




I have a friend who studies elegy. She looks at the specimens with rouged interest. But when death gets too close she requires magic. Calls on me for recipes. I wish then I could dream them, as once the faithful at the temple of Asklepios. Instead it is the work of improvised association—the herbs, the oils, the temperatures of wellness.


Across the ocean the childhood friend bearing up under the weight on her brain. On this side, she laid out prone. Anointing base of neck, at base of spine, I float my hands above each vertebrae and think in my mind some form of cooling words. I don’t remember what they were, only that they wore the greatest concentration. But what they meant: Not another elegy, not another elegy, not another elegy.




I have a friend who studies elegy. Before she keens for each loss she first is caretaker. At last she sends a message, “C. in hospice now.” And she drawn near, begging charms as each test comes back bearing news of new disaster. The grief she already carries an electricity coming off her skin. To sit with her on hospice days is to catch the shock that precedes elegy. Paresthesia of anticipated mourning.


Still she can rummage in the various secondhand stores. Can pull off the shelf a favourite from when she had a sister, and they shared a merry morbidity. She sends a photograph of the illustrated skeleton of a gnome. Notes on its organs stream down the page—I stop reading at kidneys. The gnome shares all the same organs that eventually fail us. Its giant head engulfs the grossly shortened skeleton. “No wonder,” she says, reunited with this artefact. No wonder. The stories she tells me over coffee. The keening grace that rises to the surface like sweat.




I have a friend who studies elegy. Sometimes I write about self-elegy, and sometimes I want to tell her about this. And that when I write about rats or rocks or the imagined foods of the future, I am also writing a kind of elegy. Sometimes I wonder if the self elegized is the same self each time. Sometimes I wonder if it is the same friend who studies elegy. If sameness is the subject of elegy.


We sit at a table. She orders a second filter coffee. I order a latte. We compare notes: have you read? have you seen? have you heard? Is it the instances when we say, “Me too” that we already miss most? There is no separation in view, but from the start we understand it: the dreadful pull of minutes on our briefly proximate bodies.



Kate Middleton is an Australian writer. She is the author of the poetry collections Fire Season (Giramondo, 2009), awarded the Western Australian Premier’s Award for Poetry in 2009, Ephemeral Waters (Giramondo, 2013), shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s award in 2014, and Passage (Giramondo, 2017). From September 2011-September 2012 she was the inaugural Sydney City Poet.