Death turned into a wonder by language
Intricate work blends memoir with reporting
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