The Grief Performance by Emily Kendal Frey
Grief: something we don't have scripted into our language, the something that still escapes all the words, but lives in the body.
I read Emily Kendal Frey's The Grief Performance in a space of what it means to know without thinking; that is, what it means to feel in the body without having the knowledge of the thing. I wonder what this new thinking and feeling will look like if we can no longer rely upon our old standard of argument to supplant argument or knowing in a cognitive, logical proof. What new thinker will emerge? I think Frey gives me this; instead of thinking anything to know it, she has me feeling my knowledge. The Grief Performance is exactly that, a performance, designed to make you feel an emotion not even capturable in old forms. Performances do not covey arguments, dialectics, enthymemes -- they don't convey anything, in fact. Performances bring the audience into characters, into the performance of emotions. I will never forget those words yelled by Stanley in anguish: "Stella, Stella!" More than the words, I remember that feeling in my skin and the desire in Stella -- the desire because she is desired -- and the fucked up love between them, in that moment of A Streetcar Named Desire. That was a performance. But Frey has to contend with her medium, because she is not writing a play or making a film.
She writes of Enterprise, Alabama in "I'm the scenery": "my left eye was swollen shut this morning / I can't feel anything for the town. / That's my memory of Enterprise, Alabama." She offers a fact: her left eye is swollen shut this morning. This immediately followed by how she can't feel anything for this town. I wonder about the correlation between feeling for this town and knowing this town. Frey makes the step here to undo how we might know Enterprise, Alabama through language as fact.
This raises a question for me: how do we know grief? Can we ever know it through thinking -- can we think grief? -- or is it something that must only be felt? This is Frey's performance to let us know grief without thinking it. She wants us to feel our knowing.
Section three, twenty-nine mediations on a "Mediation of Frost," and the ninth meditation reads, "Everybody has their own thing / that they yell into a well about." I sit with this mediation for a long time wondering about what it is I yell into a well about and what it means to acknowledge we have something, have something so profound, so outside of this and that articulation of pain, that we must, at some unknown point, yell into an empty, dark abyss, which echoes back to us our own words now unrecognizable in their iteration. This is one level. Imagining the scene made by these words, I am hit with the heavy grief of such a moment. I am hit with the ponderous weight of the feeling of these words. This is another level.
I might read "The History of Knives" as that piece that anchors the book. That seems the most obvious because its title bears the word "knives," and there is a knife on the front cover, and we are easily led to think that things bearing knives in this book are anchors or themes or hearts of the piece. I choose instead to read "Falun Dafa"... not as an anchor, because I don't believe there is an anchor. I don't believe Frey is operating on this organizing principle. I don't believe grief performed can be anchored anywhere. Instead I think Grief is never organized nor concerned with principles, and the performance, the performance of Grief is recursive and contingent and renewed in each piece. So I go to "Falun Dafa" because it performs a type of grief for me. Falun Dafa is an advanced practice of Buddhist mediation, which has everything to do with the cultivation of one's mind and thoughts. Frey begins this poem denouncing the premise upon which Buddhism is practiced "There is no / peace." The next lines out of self-control now and another disavowal:
I am eating
a small bad
pizza and I am
not going to stop
She violently partakes of the most ordinary of human desires in a recalcitrant effort to give the body what it wants. To purposefully not cultivate a Dafa body, or dafa mind, which is all about control and practice in order that you might gain an ultimate wisdom and harmony in life. Frey feels that tension, "there is no peace" and begins in that disharmony of desire, eating the pizza and not stopping. The last few lines finally commit the final act against Falun Dafa.
It is in these lines and lines like these ("there are three dead people in me," "here, body inside my body") that I feel Frey's performance most acutely, that we are embodied effects and inextricably contingent and always in relation to another. Our efforts to stable our minds, control our desires, and seek harmony in the universe are betrayed always, and always by what we seek outside of ourselves, and we make the sounds prayed into us: "we flip like fish. And settle in / for the grief performance."
Sitting lonely in this café now, my body wonders aloud about what it means to perform grief. As if I were to be frantically preparing for that play, which is "only the set of actors available that day." I am available now, so I sit feeling the grief of each of Frey's poems and wonder about performing them recursively for this café. To imitate an experience of grief, people might beat their heads; grovel on the ground; tear clothing, hair, and flesh; scream aloud; weep; stamp with the feet; lift the eyes. Frey's grief is quieter than this; it is a performance of the inner for the interior.
The Grief Performance by Emily Kendal Frey
Cleveland State University Poetry Center