Death turned into a won­der by lan­guage

In­tri­cate work blends mem­oir with reporting

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - EMILY M. KEELER

Eve Joseph Patrick Crean Edi­tions/HarperColl­ins Pub­lish­ers

My grand­par­ents’ love was in full bloom dur­ing their fi­nal years to­gether. My grand­mother died mak­ing cof­fee one morn­ing, when she was just 61.

She had been very sick, with a cancer that spread through her body, but what took her in the end was a mushy ap­ple strudel. She choked, tak­ing her fi­nal breath in her own home.

Years af­ter the fact, my grand­fa­ther told me they had made a kind of plan — he couldn’t stand to see her in pain, and she didn’t want to die in the hospi­tal. Af­ter the cancer had ad­vanced to a cer­tain point, he was go­ing to help usher her out of this world. That some strudel in­ter­vened to end her suf­fer­ing (and pre­vent him from break­ing the law) was even­tu­ally taken, in my fam­ily, as ev­i­dence of both God’s whimsy and His mercy.

We all have sto­ries we tell to in­stil some mean­ing into the in­com­pre­hen­si­ble end.

In her new book, In the Slen­der Mar­gin, Eve Joseph med­i­tates on just these kinds of sto­ries, the nar­ra­tives and metaphors we spin to keep the light go­ing af­ter the can­dle’s been snuffed out.

Hav­ing worked in a Vic­to­ria, B.C., hospice for two decades, Joseph has an un­usu­ally in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with death. Her med­i­ta­tions take her, and us, into the many rooms death in­evitably vis­its.

The dark­ness is never quite made light. But in her care­ful prose, her en­coun­ters with the dead, dy­ing and mourn­ing take on a kind of grace. Blend­ing el­e­ments of mem­oir, reporting and book­ish con­tem­pla­tion, In the Slen­der Mar­gin is an in­tri­cate and beau­ti­ful es­say on ap­proach­ing that good night we all go into, gen­tly or other­wise.

Joseph folds in ref­er­ences to di­verse spir­i­tual prac­tices, pop cul­ture and psy­chol­ogy, po­etry and art, all in the ser­vice of tak­ing us deeper, and more thought­fully through the process of griev­ing — be it for strangers, loved ones, or even our­selves.

Struc­tur­ing her book around dif­fer­ent el­e­ments of the end, Joseph brings the full weight of her own grief to con­sid­er­a­tion of fu­neral rites, metaphors of pas­sage, legacy and that most un­re­li­able fac­ulty, mem­ory. Her brother died as a young man when she was a girl. The friend­ships he had de­vel­oped with poets, most no­tably Ge­orge Bow­er­ing, have al­lowed his mem­ory to live on in po­ems, in metaphor.

Joseph, an award-win­ning poet her­self, ar­gues that po­etry is the lan­guage of the dy­ing: “If po­etry is how we speak to the dead, and if metaphor is the lan­guage that waits for us at the end, it is poets who help us un­der­stand death, be­cause they are us­ing that lan­guage now.”

This book is full of that lan­guage, but the metaphors and eu­phemisms feel more ac­cu­rate than the facts. Joseph’s lack of judg­ment, her will­ing­ness to lis­ten to the world of loss, and to in­vent for us an in­ti­mate lan­guage for grief, makes death a site of won­der as much as pain.

In the Slen­der Mar­gin

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