I read Claire Donato’s Burial in Providence, Rhode Island’s Swan Point Cemetery, today, gray nimbus clouds above, approximately forty thousand dead bodies distributed all around underground, beloved John Hawkes’s gravesite nearby. But you don’t need such a somber backdrop to read and appreciate it. Wherever you happen to pick it up, its elegant restraint will immediately thrust you into reverie, about form, in both its nominative and transitive senses; about memory, the unstable zone hovering between what happened and what’s remembered about what happened; about life, its processes of decay, its inevitable diminishment toward death.
Burial is as much about a daughter’s interment of an estranged father as it is about an unburying, a sifting through layers of grief, its resultant denials, resistances, and obscurities. Donato engages a poetics of mourning, evocatively using the imperative and the interrogative moods as modes of detachment, testing language, probing its limits, working within its hesitations and approximations.
But what is the frame? How does one frame death? To write down death, to transcribe the mind, provides an account of the thing—his death—and when the present becomes past, it may shed light on the twofold nature of the world—the hotel and the morgue—the structures that support his deceased body, which will soon plummet into the ground, fall through the earth at a speed that mirrors the speed of a lift, a pulley and its weight. What, you may ask, is the lesson of death?
Like the book’s many questions, the questions above aren’t so much answered as they are questioned themselves, necessarily cast within the narrator’s slippery logics, her own personal definitions of words (also evinced in the book’s many exploratory etymologies) and understandings of the world, a narrow one here encompassed within two delimited spaces, i.e., the hotel and the morgue. An “account of the thing” is achieved through legible acts, transcriptions of consciousness, a doomed project if anything.
Burial impresses for its tonal consistency, its freely associative observations, its profound-while-still-detached expressions of deeply embedded emotions, its commanding control of various energetic tensions, between openness and closure, clarity and ambiguity, knowledge and incomprehension. This is the thinking that occurs around the so-called unthinkable, what is spoken about the so-called unspeakable.