Death in Sophie Calle, Edwidge Danticat, Louise Gluck, and Lynne Tillman

M. Whiteford, Managing Editor

It started with Bowie and Prince, then Leonard Cohen after Judgement Day 2016, and then, most recently, Sam Shepherd. Four icons of my childhood, whose faces were plastered on posters above my bed, songs on repeat in my head, whose words shaped me into the confluence of identities that I am, were gone. Poof like that taken from my world and I, and so many others, left abandoned. After Shepherd left, that gaunt face of cornfields and voice of the everyman, it hit me that this was the beginning of a series of losses that I would have to endure until I too met my maker. Or, the dirt. My inner landscape was razed. There would be no more filling in, today’s towering figures aren’t suited for my heart’s prairie. From here on out, I would see my my idols fall and disappear into the unknown and so would I. The cultural anxiety seems to shiver. What and Who is next? I wake in panics that I’ll discover Patti Smith has left, or Kate Bush, or whomever forbid, Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The timing was impeccable. The death of these stand-ins for my adolescence coincided with many adult rites of passage: a loss of virtue and a loud and large crack in the fabric of American reality. Cohen would say, that crack? That’s where the light gets in. I’m still waiting for that. I’ve had a lot of personal loss in my life as well, bereavements that have ripped out parts of me that have yet to return, but I focus here on the loss of collectively shared and loved people and ideas. On the detached grief that is spread amongst millions when someone or something dissolves.
My coping mechanism in troubling times is to reach toward understanding, knowledge, and study. It’s language that provides me solace, that residue of history, soaked in meaning, which if expressed will never give up its ghost. So, duh, I turned to books on how to grieve, how to remember, how to let go, how to move on, how to heal, if the body holds the pain, the trauma, the memory, or the burden. To honor these four stalwarts, I read four books in succession, one for each immeasurable void: Sophie Calle’s gorgeous ode to her dead mother Rachel Monique, Edgwidge Danticat’s collection of essays The Art of Death, and another spirit guide whose impending death unnerves me, Louise Gluck, her book American Originality: Essays on Poetry. These books represent the various forms that death-reverence can take. Sophie’s is a monument, Edwidge’s is a eulogy, and Louise’s is a face-off with lingering grief. I’m not going to write about the details of these books. Those words are gone to me now, too. Their messages are debris of attention spent. I read them many months and many versions of myself ago. I even lost the notebook containing their quotes and thoughts I considered worthy of rewriting. All I can memorialize is their lasting impression on this one grieving human and say to those who can relate: read them. The fourth and last book I read was Madame Realism by Lynne Tillman, which is not about death per se but in which Tillman’s alter ego Paige Turner reminded me that most things don’t mean the same thing forever, and, in fact, most things disappear. Except, I’d say, for words.
The innocent times and the time for ignorance are past. Faith in our country and its citizens is on their deathbeds. Our planet is wheezing last breaths. And how do we mourn the loss of such abstractions: the figurehead, politics, one’s homeland, one’s Earth, love, youth? I want to believe in reincarnation so I can retry. We have rituals to carry us through to adulthood, to mark the end of childhood, but not to carry our youth selves with us throughout the rest of our days. Our youth is something we are taught to keep in the past, a mere step along the way toward our true callings, rather than an identity that coexists with us throughout our lives. It seems to me that this is what a ghost is, the bit where time conflates and two memories, two selves, one gone but in this moment, in every moment, is still just as present. And how I wish little me was with bigger me now, when everything is vanishing in extremis. She would remind me that this moment is but another notch on the belt.
When figures of the dead are embedded in our cultural consciousness, their ghosts remain on this Earth, no matter where their bodies have gone, be it the dirt, a cloud, eternity, or some other cycle. It’s impossible to forget some people, though they have disappeared. The day Bowie died I woke up singing Golden Years. Calle, Danticat, Gluck, and Tillman remind us that humans insist upon fighting against the impossibility of forgetting with paraphenila, memorabilia, and other tangible reminders. We make it impossible to forget. We race against absence with construction. We carve words into gravestones, build sleeping tombs and fucking pyramids, we host yearly potluck memorials, we replay speeches and construct biographies, we replay “Purple Rain”. We speak and write and record the memories before these too are gone, a juncture which heralds the truly dark end. We write about life and death and their inextricable coexistence to learn how to remain brave in the face of terrifying chaos, even if one is not brave but a child fending off the unimaginable. In reading these books, or any books on death and dying, the display of a grief that transcends authorship provides me comfort. Each word is an epitaph. I don’t have to dream up the beginning, middle, and the end. There are already words for this, someone has already written them down. The memory of the books I read filled in the absences. These words and endings are resting places, a union that will carry me, and I hope other people, through.



Calle, Sophie. Rachel Monique. Éditions Xavier Barral. 2012.

Danticat, Edwidge. The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story. Graywolf Press. 2017.

Glück, Louise. American Originality: Essays on Poetry. 2017.

Tillman, Lynne. The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories. Semiotexte. 2016