Earlier this month, Meghan O’Rourke explored the contemporary trend of American authors writing about their own deaths (typically when faced with the slow progression of a fatal disease) as a reality-entertainment driven literary realism. O’Rourke wondered at the “surprise” that “writers express . . . that their minds really are housed in bodies” and the “strangely fictive” quality of a work that anticipates the death of the author who will not be able to write her own ending.
A recent “lyrical novel,” that grapples with the unimaginable reality of death in paradoxically surreal terms, written by Tarpaulin Sky Press newcomer Claire Donato (still very much among the living) is Burial. The work is a stripped down, sterling aesthetic rendering of both grief and death, totally uncontaminated by sentimentality and yet no less visceral. Vomit, weeping and decay are stark happenings in the meditations of the book, in which, essentially, the narrator arrives at a hotel, which she conflates with the morgue where her father’s body is resting, and prepares for his burial. In this awkward landscape where a mind in mourning wanders, the characters are gaunt with anonymous identifiers like “Groundskeeper” and “The Voice”, and sentences are compared to necklaces that strangle. What’s most uncomfortable and rather breathtaking, however, is Donato’s ability to maintain an excruciating clarity of thought while teetering between prose and poetry, consciousness and death, self and other, thought and silence, grief and object, mind and body.
Burial is a chapter book of prose-poetry, which is an enthusiastic, mercurial, ill-defined genre, often perceived as difficult. It seems to me that Burial operates on an intuitive plot as well as extremely precise logic that is seldom present outside of prose poetry. How would you characterize prose-poetry as a distinct genre (perhaps it’s not distinct at all)?
I imagine the ‘prose poetry’ label is where we put sentences that don’t behave the way we expect them to. In my mind, prose-poetry is not a distinct genre; rather, it is a classification readers may or may not bring to the text, perhaps as a received idea, personal boundary, or heedful reaction.
On its surface, Burial does not necessarily fulfill expectations of traditional American fiction. By traditional, I am referring to popular fiction dependent upon plot, character, and so forth; however, this category—like prose poetry—is general and broad, and I try to avoid general and broad categories in my writing, as in my life. Burial engages and distorts conventions of fiction, and as I wrote the book, I read widely. In particular, I took in a lot of contemporary and historic international fiction. Much of the literature I read destabilizes the boundary between prose and poetry. Nathalie Sarraute, one of the authors to whom I turned, once said “there is no border, no separation, between poetry and prose.” Perhaps there exists a spectrum of extraordinary language, and this spectrum is contingent upon each reader’s linguistic adventurousness or threshold of abstraction. Maybe we simply need to rethink what we believe to be “poetic,” or what we believe to be “prose.” Or, maybe it is all dark matter.
Further, I find it useful to think of genre as a type of performance, wherein the author ‘puts on’ a genre in the same way one puts on a wig. But I was not consciously attempting to perform prose poetry when I wrote Burial. In the end, its mode of meaning-making makes more sense to me than so-called straightforward prose.
In terms of the first-hand experience of the text, the reader is basically asked to straddle two worlds simultaneously – the narrator is in a morgue and the morgue is a hotel, and the narrator checks into the morgue to grieve, suspended in a death that is not her own. It’s sort of a metaphor that gets wrapped around itself – a gesture that is repeated throughout the book. It’s interesting because as humans our minds do occupy this shadow world of death when we wonder about our own and witness that of others. What was the process of generating this prose-poetic work that straddles planes?
Burial’s world came about organically. The more I wrote the book, the more I felt as if its text possessed agency, and the more I recognized the text’s agency, the more my body was a vessel where its language could take root and become what it ended up being. This counteracts the traditional notion that the author’s mind is some grand source where language finds its origins. I was possessed by Burial, as in a fugue; its language was (and is) bigger than ‘I.’ This is not to say the process of generating the book was so free-flowing that it did not involve work. It involved a lot of work, hours of reading, writing, and research. Apart from these activities, my process entailed a lot of looping about on my feet in a fugue. I walked and ran loops around parks; I rode trains back and forth, back and forth. I wrote and rode. I memorized passages and repeated them to myself ad nauseam. (I still repeat these passages to myself, much in the same way one repeats melodies in one’s mind.) My process did not include storyboards or outlines; I began with language as material. Here, I hesitate to say ‘I began with language as material in the same way a painter begins with paint as material,’ because what if the painter begins with a concept? I began by generating prose-poetry that meditated on objects—morgues, caskets, flowers, and fish—that later became recurring leitmotifs in the narrator’s world. She (the narrator) grew out of these objects, first as an ‘I,’ then as an absent first-person speaker—or should I say listener?—when I edited away the first-person.
In sum, Burial’s world expanded outward as its narrator—both present and in absentia—took shape in language. Within her language, my material, I located the book’s concept (a woman grieving the loss of her father checks into a hotel she conflates with the morgue where his body is being kept . . . ). There existed a period of time where a draft of the manuscript was at rest. And then I picked it up again, retyped it all and addressed its defects. These defects were, of course, subjective: In ways, I aspire to create defective texts.
Or, conversely: Language as paint, paint not necessarily as equivalent to words. Concept preceding or not preceding text. Burial as a peripatetic process, a contrapuntal composition.
The work is both macabre and deeply philosophical, operating by a series of simple questions horrifying in their magnitude. Early on, the narrator asks, “What does it mean to be dead?” I’m curious to know more about your interest in writing so closely to the subject of death in this way that performs the painful mental struggle with mortality.
What’s not interesting about death? There is no greater mystery! I’ve always been interested in writing about topics unfamiliar to me, instead of ascribing to the writing workshop cliché of “writing what [I] know.” Paradoxially, death is both unfamiliar to me (insofar as I am alive) and immediate: I am going to die, and people I love will die, and this inevitability is a tremendous site of anxiety and preoccupation. As a human being, I simultaneously dread and desire to understand death; as a writer, I explore it as a subject, and it becomes a living thing, an organism that reflects life.
A poignant moment I thought was the opening of the chapter titled, “Question,” in which the question is posed: “Must crisis enter the heart? Or might the heart open its gates, spill open its contents and reveal itself as wholly self-contained, split apart by death . . . ” So there’s a choice between crisis (death?) entering the heart and the heart as its own crisis, which is to ask how do crisis and the heart relate. What are the crises that contemporary literature is responding to?
The answers to this question depend on the contemporary literature to which we are referring. The answers also depend on which contemporaries we consider. In the literature I craft, I am interested in writing toward essential questions: How to live? How to die? What is death? Why are we here? I am also interested in investigating how we negotiate our own subjective perceptions with a supposed objective reality, or how to see the seeing; how to transcribe the body’s peculiar physical sensations, defenses, questions, ways of indicating, and so forth; how to step outside of these patterns; how to play; how to empathize; how to work within and beyond discomforting spaces; how to imagine a world without myself in it. I am not sure these preoccupations of mine are crises. Presently, the crisis for me is to read or write, and how to survive.
There’s a dialogue about love that occurs between a male Voice and the female narrator, who is often commenting on the bodiliness / objectness of her environment, even choosing the cold factness of the body over abstraction. It’s a striking and tricky way to work with an original female perspective that embodies both voice and gaze, by putting such a voice in conversation with other voices. How was the voice and perspective of this book shaped?
Burial did not occur in a vacuum. Its voice and perspective were shaped via sensory processing, as in reading, watching, listening, touching, and taste. While working on it, I ingested so many books, records, films, and long-form television shows. I turned and returned to visual art. I watched dance performances. I went for long runs and did yoga. I had conversations with co-investigators, mentors, and friends—notably, I took decompression walks with my neighbor who was studying for the LSAT. I worked as an amanuensis while writing the book, and the process of transcription influenced my writing in ways I do not fully understand. As I edited the book’s final drafts, I turned to my bones. All of these things helped me perceive more clearly.
Those interested in specific examples can check out Burial’s acknowledgements, where I include a partial list of sources that inspired the text. Even that list, in fact, was inspired by someone else—my friend Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi suggested I create it.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a second novel (entitled Noël), multiple poems, and a theoretical performance called SPECIAL AMERICA, which I collaborate on with Jeff T. Johnson, and which is my favorite art to make.
Photo by Bill Hayward, courtesy of Claire Donato.