Grief doesn’t only disturb life; it disturbs the way we talk about life. As myriad aspects of our existence are questioned and reexamined in the wake of a death, so too is our relationship with the language we rely on for our grief’s expression. “In the sentence ‘She’s no longer suffering,’” Roland Barthes notes after the death of his mother, “to what, to whom does ‘she’ refer? What does that present tense mean?’” So too Anne Carson, discussing her work Nox in an interview with Brick, states that elegy—the process of paying literary homage to a lost one—is always a visible failure, a process of “non-arriving” while linguistically “giving the shape of a person” in a visibly constructed manner. Our relationship with language as truth is made uneasy after a death. We are always “telling a story” (Carson) when we elegize. Our loved ones are always linguistic constructions. And they are always more than the sum of our words.
It is a problem that Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie & Lowell acknowledges from its first track, “Death With Dignity.” “I don’t know where to begin,” Stevens sings quietly in a phrase he will repeat a further three times (more than any other in the song). It is a phrase that hints at the singer’s recognition of the myriad, paralyzing opportunities that elegy poses for painting different, perhaps conflicting, portraits of a loved one, as well as the difficulty of trying to sum up a cherished life in any artwork at all. And it is one that the storytelling style of the track reinforces, with its various vivid snapshot images. How best to frame her life and their relationship? How to draw a meaningful and overarching narrative out of the moments that stand out in his memory? “Death With Dignity” is a perfect example of the process of “non-arriving” that Carson describes. From its narrative of ultimately undeveloped and unlinked scenes, and in its very musicality—the way that the guitar part hangs in tremulous silence before each set of vocals—Stevens’s introductory track self-consciously highlights the impossibility of achieving any perfect elegiac remembrance of his mother. Yet, as the images persist and the guitar part plucks on, we are faced with the paradox of grief: the impossibility of meaningful speech, and the impossibility of silence. And so the album continues.
It’s a problem that is articulated again and again. “What’s the point of singing songs,” Stevens asks at the end of “Eugene,” “if they’ll never even hear you?” No matter how we try, elegy isn’t resurrection or even preservation in a vampiric sense, able to transform the dead to the status of “undead” if not quite “living.” The dead can only be articulated through us, and in doing so some of them is lost to us; their absence made all the more notable. Stevens’s audience hears of his mother, but they hear only him. In Carson’s phrasing, “It’s hard to keep the dignity of the subject without getting your own fingerprints all over it” and lyrically Stevens’s second track shows this to be true. The word “I” appears eighteen times; the word “my” fifteen; far more than any other. And the “lonely vampire” Stevens identifies in “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross” is not his mother but himself, feeding on her life and his grief. Elegy and artful grief, both works seem to suggest, can so easily make monsters of ourselves. Yet what can we do but speak of it? The Catullus elegy that haunts Carson’s Nox must be translated in the end, albeit imperfectly (Carson destroys the work finally and speaks frequently throughout of the impossibility of any true translation). Stevens’s mother’s absence and his grief-full memories must similarly be translated into performance.
When we approach elegy, Carson says in Nox, “We want other people to have a centre, a history, an account that makes sense. We want to be able to say, ‘This is what he did and here’s why.’ It forms a lock against oblivion.” Elegy, in other words, is a protection spell as well as a resurrection. In Carson’s Nox, the failure of this attempt at elegiac shielding is clear even from the work’s form. Designed as a single, accordioned page, the idea of a developing individual narrative is undermined from the start: we have only what exists on the one sheet, no more, no less; all information viewable at once, if desired. The dearth of clear, protective, narrative meaning and containment is also visible in the work’s vast white expanses; in its hand cut, uncaptioned photographs; in its lack of developing narrative. As Carson writes in her first entry, “No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history.” The attempt to wield her brother’s life into a protective, linear, developed tale is doomed even from the beginning. “A brother never ends”, she acknowledges, “I prowl him. He does not end.” Elegy cannot protect us. It is merely a contained space for us to prowl, and to prowl in a performative manner.
Carrie & Lowell also fails to achieve anything like this protective “lock against oblivion.” Indeed, as the earlier quoted “lonely vampire” line illustrates, to be affected by grief (as one must be to write good elegy) is to be damaged; in this case to be made less than human. The several references to self-injury—“There’s blood on that blade / fuck me I’m falling apart” in “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross’ and “The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm / Cross hatch, warm bath” in “The Only Thing” merely emphasizes this. Grief is a dangerous game. But Carrie & Lowell doesn’t just undermine the idea of elegy as a protective project; it shows us the horror of oblivion as well as the impossibility of fully locking it away. This is an album of haunting rhetorical questioning and hollow “should haves.” From the opening track’s “What is that song you sing to the dead?” we move to “Should have wrote a letter,” to track three’s “Shall we beat this or celebrate it?,” to the rhetorically-laden “Drawn To The Blood,” “Eugene,” “Fourth of July,” and “The Only Thing.” “How? How did this happen? / How? How did this happen?” Stevens asks, “What did I do to deserve this now?” “What could I have said to raise you from the dead?” “ I wonder did you love me at all?” Far from creating a safe space to order his grief and contain his mother’s life, the time spent immersed in it only raises more unanswerable uncertainties; uncertainties that wound.
Yet the musical form of Sufjan’s elegiac songs illustrate well elegy’s tantalizing bind. The album’s abrupt end—described by critics like TheNeedleDrop’s Anthony Fantano as glaringly sudden, a kind of “non ending”—can be read indeed as evidence of the impossibility of drawing a strong, protective lock across the processes of remembrance and grief: something echoed by the guitar pauses in “Death With Dignity” and “Eugene” and the double-tracked vocals and guitars that allow the listener to hear the emptiness between them—giving the sense that any structure is hollow and might end at any time. But on the whole this is an album of carefully structured songs that suggest some level of containment is indeed possible. The repetitive guitar runs, choruses, and chord progressions operate within songs that (for the most part) all have a clear beginning and end, holding the lonely rhetorical questions in their protective structural shell, and the fact that music demands to be listened to in real time (as opposed to Carson’s Nox, which can be scanned incredibly quickly, or all at once if viewed from far enough away) means that a developing portrait of a woman and a grieving process is inevitable, if incomplete. To an extent, a life can be contained within a work. Out of the ashes of elegiac failure rises… something. Elegy, as Stevens’s album performs it, might fail to answer all of our anxieties in any satisfying way. But it can hold them in place in some corner of time, thought, and space.
Carrie & Lowell is an album, then, that performs the failures and limitations of elegy. Yet it is not a failure. Writing personally, and with the support of critics who have variously labelled it “fraught and beautiful,” “one of the year’s defining moments,” and “his best,” Stevens has created something of incredible beauty and heavy meaning. And perhaps that is all that elegy must ultimately achieve in order to be successful. To return to the words of Anne Carson on Nox:
I don’t think it had any effect whatsoever on my understanding…I finally decided that understanding isn’t what grief is about. Or laments. They’re just about making something beautiful out of the ugly chaos you’re left with when someone dies. You want to make that good. And for me, making it good means making it into an object that’s exciting and beautiful to look at.