by Katie Peterson
reviewed by Heather Treseler
Katie Peterson’s The Accounts, winner of this year’s Rilke Prize, affirms Anne Carson’s claim that writing is an erotic act, a reaching beyond the present reality toward someone or somewhere else. Eros and death are uncomfortable bedfellows: we didn’t need Freud to tell us that. But in Peterson’s collection, erotic longing and primary loss are only one set of arterial branches at the heart of “the story.” The Accounts is a gripping examination of the experience of a parent’s death, but these poems also convey what it means to live in the world as a sophisticated reader. In showing where our narratives touch and intersect, The Accounts is as much about the sexuality of reading as it is about what Julia Kristeva called “amorous passion’s somber lining.”
In Peterson’s opening poem, “Spring,” the speaker is rereading King Lear while imagining her lover reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles for the first time. Suddenly, the plot lines merge:
Cordelia with the armies of her husband
scouring the unharvested corn of her homeland
for her naked, wandering, delusional father.
Tess at the dairy, good at her job. Angel
in the field, his fingers on the strings of his harp.
You carrying me into a lake in August,
the summer my mother left the earth.
What is remarkable about Peterson’s collection is that it presents elegy with poignancy and psychological depth while resisting the claustrophobia of mourning. In The Accounts, death is not a widening gyre, a mouth swallowing us into an isolated interiority, but a door to other plots unfolding with richness and synchronicity. The title poem, for instance, recounts a mother’s last moments from several perspectives, taking as its own imperative “Do not ask what has been / lost. Ask what changed.” Exploring loss as unscripted transformation, the poem’s “accounts” complicate the narrative lent to death by science and the Judeo-Christian paradigm.
Thus in the poem’s third section, we witness the dying woman’s yearning to enter another realm, one unsheathed of bodies, while she remains scrupulously kind to those at her bedside.
The mind wants first
to end the face. The subject
has had enough, one too many
figures walking through the orchard, the call
and response of conversation
become an imposition on some other world
unbroken by the idea of separate bodies…
. . . the fatigue of existing
in the continuing illusions of others. And yet, the obligation
to be kind, to show interest in strangers
when they visit with flowers.
The mother’s abiding regard for others persists in extremis. Yet, after describing her charitable love, the narrative shifts to another “account,” one omniscient and clinical. Here, the poem traces the body’s demise at a cellular level, registering the cessation of breath; the ebb of dreams and mental imagery; a heightening of the physical senses. Few poets have described death’s arrival with such daring.
In the last account, the explosions
are too small to be seen, and oxygen
takes both thirst and hunger away
as it ceases to find a home in the lungs,
and the patient, having ceased to feel, ceases
to breathe, as the heart shuts down
before the brain and shuts
the dreaming down, the settling on a nest
of images, not feeling any form of distress.
Lending death a nest of detail, the poet rescues the event from its numbingly official documents: the medical certificate and obituary, the eulogy and epitaph, those statements “eloquent but very simple, / factual and correct” (“Eulogy”) that often efface those we seek to memorialize.
Peterson’s poems trace the shadow of their complications: what it means to be falling in love while one’s mother is dying; what it means to lose one’s mother when one is not herself a mother; and what it means to write of a mortal ending with the “hunch a story’s end / insults itself.” In poems as intently crafted as they are attentive, Peterson allows the reader to trust in the romantic conviction that a poem might provide a provisional handbook for living. And, in an age in which “embodiment” has become a Zen bromide, this collection— one of the strongest books of elegy in the past decade—redeems the possibility of a rigorous intelligence scored by a sensual body, prayerful in its qualifications.
Published on September 30, 2014