#727 Death by a thousand words

Against Death: 35 Essays on Living
by Elee Kraljii Gardiner (editor)

Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2019
$22.00 / 9781772141276

Reviewed by Sally Campbell

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This book intrigued me with its title. What does it mean, “Against Death?” I am not against death, it’s the one event post-birth that all creatures share. Then I got the double entendre, up against death, aha! At the end of one wet and blustery day, about two-thirds through the anthology, I wondered if I ought to stop reading it for awhile, that perhaps its contents were contributing to my dark mood, my low affect. I instantly recognized that as a misleading thought; far from depressing, this book uplifts. It normalizes the exploration of each individual’s unique relationship with death. As editor Elee Kraljii Gardiner contends, “Each of us is an idiosyncratic bundle of experiences…. What matters is where we put meaning” (p. 10). And I loved the urgent request in Keira Miller’s introduction, asking for our attention, “the most valuable thing we have: we experience only what we pay attention to” (p. 20). So I gave it my attention.

No one runs a marathon without training, or perhaps I should say, a “successful” marathon; yet most of us approach death — the biggest challenge of all — with little or no preparation. This collection is a primer on loss, grief, and the grit it takes to have a wide-awake encounter with death. It is a highly individualized, charged, and often lyrical training manual on the subject. The authors (several now gone) have each brought their best writerly powers, a laser-like observation, an unsparing eye to the task at hand.

We see death-denial all around us, as if it won’t come our way if we don’t acknowledge it. It seems as if even the use the word “death” is too final, too blunt for many. Better to say “passing.” “So-and-so passed the other day.” Passed what, her exams? A gall stone? Passed by our house? And another died “before his time.” What does that mean? Surely it was his time if he is now dead. An 80 year-old died “too young.” Really? When are we old enough to die? And do we actually expect death to be fair? The writers in Against Death do not sugarcoat or smooth over the capriciousness or the finality of death. They pull no punches. They show their naked fear, their grief, and their fight.

Métis poetry artist Susan Cormier grew up in Salmon Arm. Photo courtesy Understory Magazine

Each tale is quite different; the close encounter with death may be that of their own illness or horrific accident, a child’s overdose, or a beloved spouse’s painful death. Or perhaps the ultra-consciousness of death that a firefighter develops as he lives with the trauma of daily close contact with the injured and dying, with carnage and dead bodies. His wife, the Langley writer Susan Cormier, “squints through the scotoma of seizures and migraines” following her life-threatening car accident and tells us how they carry on (“Once Upon a Holly Tree,” p. 30). Or in one tale, a parent’s grim and ongoing wish for death became deeply embedded in the writer’s worldview during childhood. Unaware of the source of her wish to “unexist,” the daughter was altered profoundly by her own near-death experience (“Waves,” Fiona Tinwei Lam, p. 177). Whatever the connection, the authors live intimately with their subject, sharing their searing stories with the reader.

Victoria-born Joe Average. Photo by Lien Yeung via CBC

Vancouver artist Joe Average sets out a major theme of the book in the title of his wonderful tale of survival with chutzpah: “How to Make Art Out of This.” Time and again, the authors acknowledge the life-affirming power of art — be it poetry and other writing, video, painting, performance, or the art of gardening. It doesn’t make the struggle go away, but as Joe Average says, “Art makes everything better” (p. 81).

The power of imagination, however, can add to distress. “As a writer, my imagination has always been an asset. As a patient, it’s a liability, a disruptive force that needs to be controlled,” says Becky Blake (“The Reboot Diary,” p. 98). When harnessed, as described by Bruce Meyer in his “Sweet River of Red,” imagination helped save his life the night he was expected to die. His description:

Poetry and I were dancing for our lives. It needed me to embrace the words and ideas and I needed it to fill me with a wonder that was new and bright and glistening like a dense green jungle whose every leaf was gleaming after a steaming rain at dawn…. I realized what it was to be alive (p. 285).

Harry Langen (1952-2017)

These writers detail the often slow and lengthy process that followed their encounter with death, the upending of their lives, the realization that they were no longer the same person, but who were they? The discovery that society’s rules and norms were no longer relevant. What is left when all foundations have been shattered and swept away? As Lisa Neighbour describes it, “… anyone who has experienced it [the process of transformation] will from then on understand reality in a completely new way” (“The School of Possibility: Living and Creating after Surviving,” p. 331). And from Kateri Lanthier in her wondrously titled “Lifelines: of Heart, Lungs, Blood and Ghazals.” “It was light-dark, sad-happy, an unstable register that seemed the new reality for me” (p. 115).

Vancouver poet Jane Mellor. Photo by Ayelet Tsabari

Metaphors involving fog, haze, a veil, and darkness are employed by several contributors to describe this time of fear and grief and personal unravelling around death and dying. In “The Stars are Strangers,” the late Harry Langen notes that in the “trek across my personal sea of mortality — self-persecutions and judgements are all dissipating like the fog on my sea” (p. 181).

There is often, in this collection, some kind of descent to the underworld:

It’s difficult to feel alive and well
when loss is a dark pit…
When you remember all is nothing now…  (Jane Mellor, “When Earth is Unveiled,” p. 204).

There are no easy outs or shortcuts on this journey, no place for self-pity if one is to avoid being sucked into the dark hole. As Moira MacDougall recounts, “the one moment I wailed, I want my life back! A clear voice from within responded, then you are going to have to go and get it.” (“Mapping Resilience,” p. 64).

Fiona Tinwei Lam

And then a rebirth of a kind, a resurgence that is not the same thing as positivity, but a carrying-on, an eyes-wide-open reengagement with life. There is a clarity when the fog lifts. One may become, as Laurie Lewis self-describes, a “Mouthy Old Broad,” the name of her forthcoming collection of essays (“Qwerty,” p. 271). Or as Vera Constantineau puts it, “I’ve learned a lot about positivity and I know it’s pure bull … I say fuck that noise. Does death still scare me? Hell, yes.” (“Options,” p. 326). What flows from that fear is a fierce determination to live every day, fully alive. As Vancouver poet Fiona Tinwei Lam recounts, “…I realized that my mere presence on the planet had import and significance and meaning. No need to prove anything to anyone…. just being alive … had meaning and purpose” (“Waves,” p. 178).

Time and again these writers come through their wrestling match with mortality, emerging into their own personal meditation on love. “The point is to love as fervently as possible, even and especially when it hurts,” says Nikki Reimer in her lyrical essay, “Gently Fondling the Nylon-Tipped Sticks of Death” (p. 266, and how’s that for a riveting title?). In her gorgeous “Eye of the Storm, Rachel Rose notes, “how fragile is the membrane between animation and stillness” (p. 246), and then offers us inspiration:

Maureen Medved of UBC

But hospice workers know that we live right until the moment we live no longer. The process of dying can be a chance to be loved, to grow and to find peace…. Even death can be a poem, a poem that ends on the exhalation (p. 247).

My motto was given to me many years ago by the Toronto band, Mother Tongue: “Be ready to live forever; be ready to die tomorrow.” Maureen Medved sums up that idea beautifully, expressing a conviction shared by many of the writers: “I don’t wish to live any life other than one on the verge of death” (“The Golden Circles,” p. 164).

There are many more treasures in this anthology, far too many to detail in a review. Best to buy the book and discover the ideas and insights that speak most directly to you.

Against Death was edited by Elee Kraljii Gardiner. Photo by Paul Joseph

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Sally Campbell

Sally Campbell is a nearly-retired mediator and conflict resolution trainer, born in B.C., living on Hornby Island, in the traditional territory of the K’omoks and formerly Pentlatch First Nations. Her work has taken her across Canada and into diverse cultural contexts. Her head has been immersed in books since early childhood and she’s now focusing more on her own writing. Sally has mostly written about working with conflict, developing materials for lawyers, judges, academics, and communities. Indigenous communities and colleagues have been her great teachers, leading directly to her immersion, writing, and teaching on restorative practices. She is presently researching war abolition and developing her chops as a Peace Correspondent. For more detail see her website.

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The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for serious coverage of B.C. books and authors, hosted by Simon Fraser University. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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