This is no. 44 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
Elegies speak to both [the living and the dead], forced to negotiate the impossible ethical demands of a genre that strives neither to disrespect the memory of the dead nor to ignore the needs of the living.
Each November, for nearly a decade, I have written a poem marking Trans Day of Remembrance (TDoR), an annual day of mourning for trans people lost to anti-trans violence. These poems are almost uniformly bad, but the most recent one, “Anti-Elegy,” made its way into Dispatch. I hope it will be the last of them.
I find this occasional writing practice a confusing one—shameful, consoling, deadening, and, somehow, like feeding a tiny fire. From the beginning, I have known all of the critiques of TDoR: It has historically enabled white activists to extract political capital from the deaths of primarily Black trans women; the frame of “anti-trans” violence obscures more than it explains about the curtailing of trans feminine life; TDoR circulates “the trans woman of color” as a dead figure and therefore strips her of her life, her worlds. Still, it also is true that I came to understand trans as something it was possible for me to be when my high school’s tiny gay-straight alliance erected cardboard tombstones in the hallway to mark those trans women who had been lost. Trans became an intimate possibility in reference to strangers’ deaths. For this reason, trans has always felt, to me, entangled with elegy.
The classic elegy—at least as I understand it—has a three-part structure: lament, praise, consolation. First you express deep sorrow over someone’s passing; then you praise their life, usually in idealized terms; then you provide some consolation for the living. Poets and scholars have long debated the ethics of elegy—whether an elegy can ever provide the consolation it promises, whether and under what circumstances we ought to make use of the dead, whether mourning enables or precludes political action. The answer to each of these questions is, of course, it depends. Still, there were two sentences from Diana Fuss’s Dying Modern: A Meditation on Modern Elegy on my mind the November I wrote “Anti-Elegy,” sentences that prompted me to return to my own questions about for whom and to what ends the elegy works. In the first, Fuss argues that the effect of elegy is “not merely to recognize the dead but also to bring them back to life.” In the second, she affirms R. Clifton Spargo’s claim that “ethics and elegy…both typically view every death as an injustice.”
TDoR, too, is structured by these general claims: that it is important to keep the memory of individuals alive—to keep them with us—and that each entry on the list of the dead is an injustice. Undoubtedly each death on the list is the outcome of an injustice, but I’ve become increasingly suspicious of the idea that death itself is unjust. Often what is unjust is everything that preceded the end. What is unjust is the terms of living. There is something deeply unsettling, that is, to the insistence that someone ought to be alive in a world that did little to support that life. There is something deeply unsettling, therefore, about Fuss’s characterization of the elegy as a genre that strives to reanimate the dead, to bring them back.
I find “Anti-Elegy,” as the product of these reflections, to be unsettling; its questioning of the elegy inevitably involves questioning the terms by which I came to understand myself as trans, by which I came to understand myself. Perhaps for this reason “Anti-Elegy” is formally an unsettled poem; it asks question after question and does not ever arrive at answers: “Who am I to say rise?...who am I to say, dance // with me here a little longer?” Driving this accumulation of questions is another question just beneath the surface—the poem is really asking, over and over, Should this poem exist? Should this poem exist? It depends. But this is, for all of us, an important question to ask of our work before we put it into the world.
If we’re lucky, one poem leads us to the next. In this case, “Anti-Elegy” led me to write “All My Friends Are Sad & Bright,” a poem that is technically an elegy, but which leaves the dead in peace. Certainly this isn’t an answer to the “impossible ethical demands” of elegy, but there is something to be said for a poetics of trans/Black/queer life that takes death as its impetus, but not its object, that mourns but also (and because of this) hopes.
Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.