Bittersweet is Umami: Ashley Haywood Reviews ‘Eating My Grandmother: A Grief Cycle’ by Krissy Kneen

Eating My Grandmother: A Grief Cycle by Krissy Kneen UQP, 2015.

eating my grandmother‘She is ghosting’ becomes a more palpable image when the grieving poet begins eating her grandmother’s ashes. This is the fugue-like theme to Krissy Kneen’s first poetry collection Eating my Grandmother: A Grief Cycle, which won the 2014 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. Kneen is otherwise known as a novelist, short-story writer and documentary filmmaker, a writer of memoir, erotic fiction, candid and playful prose—actually, the first time I saw Kneen read her prose, she was naked, as was the audience, at a Queensland Poetry Festival (2015) event celebrating eroticism in literature.

Eating my Grandmother’s ‘cycle’ is sustained by Kneen’s continual returning to the urn for another taste of her grandmother, which preludes further clearing and stripping away of the more intangible material: mystery, forgetting, remembering, grief. ‘Once cleared the room writes itself ’, poet and academic Anne Carson tells us of her method in Economy of the Unlost. I was reminded of this when reading Kneen’s poetry. Carson adds that ‘It’s the clearing that takes time. It is the clearing that is the mystery’. Kneen’s subtext is like this room with her body in the midst of clearing and stripping away what is unknowable—to look more closely at the flesh and bones of what is knowable, what is within reach, what is more tangible—in her way making sense of her grief following the death of her grandmother.

Kneen’s imagery deals with her ‘clearing’ as she writes her way into a visceral, singular nakedness. As she proceeds, Kneen points out the mystery that surrounded her grandmother in life, but answers to who was Dragitsa Marusic (or Lotty Kneen) are not sought after here—for they are not clearly within reach, they are mystery that perhaps takes up too much room here. Kneen’s grandmother, for example, is like the fairy tales ‘she collected in her bone-rattle hands / re-told through her snag-tooth mouth’. She is ‘Lie upon lie upon missing truth. / Migrant papers, lost’; ‘She sails free / from the burning of her birth certificates’ in life and now death; simply put (in Requiem, ix):

All the burning buildings piled with
smoulder
coals of hidden history
taken to the grave.

So, what is within reach? Kneen tells us, the urn: ‘Clear, water-tight, half-priced from Bunnings’. The tangible grit of Marusic’s cremated remains, the taste and feel of them on Kneen’s tongue—‘I feel the scratch of her fingernail tracking my trachea’—and the day-to-day life that ensues. Kneen’s grief cycle begins with the following lines, which are among the most tantalising in this poetry collection (in Prelude):

I pick a grain of her, stolen from the urn
place it on my tongue.
Her body.
My blood.

She lodges in me.

Readers of Carson, who has written much on grief and Eros, might recognise Carson’s influence on Kneen’s poetry. Concerning Kneen’s style, I was especially reminded of Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband: A fictional essay in 29 tangos. And, with thinking about the nature of grief—what Eating my Grandmother inspires—I began thinking about Carson’s critical work Eros the Bittersweet. Eros, in Greek, does not so much mean love but desire for who or what is not fully within us, or who or what is not within reach. Grief, in this way, is akin to desire. But, unlike the potential to be touched by the beloved in our lives, those who elicit grief in us usually remain unreachable.

Kneen challenges this idea of grief when she reaches for a grain of grandmother and brings it into her body. Bittersweet is umami in ‘Eating my Grandmother’. Endocannibalism—consuming the flesh of family or community, be it roasted, pickled, fermented or ash—is, to the western mind, an extreme form of grieving still practised in a number of cultures today. In Fugue, iv:

I eat unspeakably,
swallowing whole as one might an oyster
the unnamed part of her.
Today’s funeral offering.

If we think of Kneen’s collection as like a fugue, which names one section among Prelude, Requiem and Cadenza, the theme is the ash-grain of her grandmother. With every grain she eats, Kneen’s grief-fugue cycle grows. The poet’s body is both ‘warm coffin’ and ‘womb’ for the grains she consumes. The concept of growth tied to the necessity of death—or discontinuity, as in a fugue for it’s musical continuance, or dislocation, as in a fugue state, in which a new identity may be forged—is a paradox that Kneen wraps her fingers around and brings into her body like the ouroboros. The poet is self-eating (Her body. / My blood.) for self-making: ‘in all the painful trudge of days ahead I grow / in grit / in earth / in death’.

Eating my Grandmother inspires much thought on the nature of grief. Kneen extends her practise of endocannibalism to consuming pica—‘the inedible things that I have eaten’. Pica is an object void of nourishment; nevertheless, it nourishes the sensing of reality, enriches a moment, with the companion of taste. This is the singularness of Kneen’s grief cycle: moving toward the moment, or a moment of self-making, of new configurations, all flesh and bone and vulnerable—‘And here I am undone. // Now is the time … // Now is the time. If Eating my Grandmother is a eulogy, it is also a self-eulogy (which is not to say momento mori).

Kneen’s premise, or prelude, is intoxicating—endocannibalism certainly takes hold of the reader’s attention. Eating my Grandmother is confessional, sensual and honest. The reader is invited into a poetic narrative. All of this is attractive for many readers. Some readers of poetry may find, at times, a word and/or line break that could be better placed for, or a non-poetic repetition diminishing, the potential of her ideas. Kneen’s ideas are complex and stimulating, and are what held me to Eating my Grandmother, but it’s hard to know how far I’ve run wild with them on my own. Nevertheless, I have run wild—rejection of the unreachable, grief akin to desire, endocannibalism as a reachable act in grief, growth in death, writing into the moment of a naked ‘undone’—what more can I ask from poetry? Eating my Grandmother: A grief cycle is a remarkable achievement for a first collection.

Eating my Grandmother: A grief cycle was launched at the Queensland Poetry Festival 2015.

 – Ashley Haywood

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Ashley Haywood is a writer with work published in Australia and performed in the streets of Paris. Recently, she received a PhD with her thesis Harlequin Blue and The Picasso Experiment. Most recently, her writing appears in Spineless Wonders’ anthology Out of Place. She also paints with pigments collected in her travels. Ashley currently lives between Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

Eating my Grandmother: A grief cycle is available from  http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/Book.aspx/1353/Eating%20My%20Grandmother-%20A%20Grief%20Cycle

 

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