America’s pre-eminent writer on grief?

With a book review in The New Yorker this month, Meghan O’Rourke takes another step toward the title. Not yet 35, several years ago O’Rourke was culture editor at Slate. More recently, she’s published her poetry — her “Troy” is among those hanging on the side of my fridge — and been a poetry editor at Paris Review. Outside any official title, she has been working through her mother’s death and grieving. One of her ways of doing so has been examining how grief happens.

She does so anew in her review of poet Anne Carson’s Nox, a book that mourns Carson’s brother, who died in 2000. The loss takes torn, innumerable shapes in the book, and O’Rourke serves as interpreter.

“Nox” is as much an artifact as a piece of writing. The contents arrive not between two covers but in a box about the size of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Inside is an accordion-style, full-color reproduction of the notebook, which incorporates pasted-in photographs, poems, collages, paintings, and a letter Michael once wrote home, along with fragments typed by Carson. The reproduction has been done painstakingly, and conjures up an almost tactile sense of the handmade original. A mourner is always searching for traces of the lost one, and traces of that scrapbook’s physicality–bits of handwriting, stamps, stains–add testimonial force: this person existed.

The analysis joins O’Rourke’s look at better grief, her “Long Goodbye” series for Slate (with my favorite part, her grief reading of Hamlet) and plans for a 2011 book on the subject. She’s written well — very well — during this period on other topics, of course. In the latter link, “My Life as a Ruler” is great. But she has taken a kind of ownership on grief.

Not the kind of ownership that is about possession, but the kind that’s about responsibility. For an owner to be young, have a poet’s sense of observation and take a humble, outward-looking stance on experience is promising for her us, for us and for our difficulties, ultimately shared.

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