This month’s Brown Study is a little different. I’m sharing three reference pieces to read in conjunction with Gaia Rajan’s poem. We continue to search for a viable alternative to the annotation feature—if you have a tip, please hit me up on twitter @jenidelao!
One reason I was so enamored of this poem was its clear reference to Thessaloniki taking to the sea and transforming herself, in her overwhelming grief, into a creature for whom drowning in tears (or ocean water) would not mean the end of life, but the continuation of it. Thessaloniki was already immortal when she took to the sea, but in transforming her physical self into an emblem of her enduring grief, she became a legend. This structure is laid out plainly in the first set of couplets. The detached narration in this first set of lines is underscored by how much is happening—it all sounds intense—but we the reader are floating just above it, observing.
In choosing Thessaloniki to frame this exploration of grief, Rajan welcomes the reader to imagine a world in which ending the pain is not an option—how does one imagine enduring in grief? For background, in the myth, Alexander’s sister is so overcome with grief upon hearing of his death that she walks into the ocean to drown herself. However, big-bro had washed her hair with water from the Fountain of Youth so she was immortal; instead of drowning, Thessaloniki sprouted scales, grew gills and became a mermaid.
At the heart of this poem is the balance between experience and memory, loss and survival. The opening lines set the tone for the entire poem. At the beginning of this universe there is a girl and the ocean. Why? Sections ii-iv tell us that story. Rajan shows us the cyclical and non linear path of grief by restarting the numerals for the sections after four, never “moving on,” but rather circling back to the mythological frame work that allows the speaker to process her world, retreating. This returning to the grief is the tidal pull of the entire poem, it mimics the poems larger message.
In general, women are allowed few kinds of public grief, but principal among them are familial and romantic. In the Greek tale, Thessaloniki mourns her brother, not a lover. In this poem, the speaker mourns her friend—not a fleshly sister or a partner. Sexual intimacy is removed as the basis for overwhelming grief. Rajan challenges the reader to consider how we parse grief—how we assign roles in grief: immediate family and spouses may be bereaved, but cousins and aunts? Perhaps not—and yet is that how life works? This is important because Rajan presents us with a relationship that doesn’t quite fit into either of those realms: with the intimacy of a romantic partnership and the fraternity of family: friendships often swim in the murky waters between those two socially acceptable touchstones for women.
Sur la Lune is an amazing resource for tracing the origins of fairy tales. As Rajan makes use of the voiceless mermaid trope in this piece, a review of the basic Little Mermaid tale is in order. In contrast to the Little Mermaid fairy tale, Rajan’s mermaid is escaping the land-world (preferring cartography of oceans “not the land part”); and the speaker’s voice is silenced not to acquire something new (like a prince) but to preserve memory (if memory is body, the speaker tells us she is “revising” her body).
One of the central concepts in this poem is an exploration of grief’s ownership. Rajan grapples with the philosophical questions we would otherwise try to bury: what qualifies as grief and what gets labeled disenfranchised grief? who gets to make that determination? The first hints of this exploration are found in the very opening sets of couplets. Someone is telling a story—not the speaker, not the dead friend—a disembodied voice is telling a story, perhaps the same voice to whom the speaker is a silent pretty thing? From the outside looking in it would be easy to dismiss the speaker’s immersion in grief. They’ve lost a friend. But they’re young, they’ll get over it. The grief experienced by our speaker is, from this point of view, disenfranchised.
This concept is so well served by the structure Rajan selected. Sections allow the speaker to jump in and contrast the disembodied voice by sharing her own story, showing us—down to the cellular level—that this grief is not disenfranchised—it’s not even theoretical. Here I’d like to point to a broader connection in this poem that I feel is outside the scope of what Rajan set out to write. Turn on the news at nearly any time of the day and you’ll find post mortems on the state-sanctioned murder of George Floyd as the former Police Officer who took his life is now on trial. The very public way in which Mr. Floyd was executed forced us all to reckon with this question: whose grief? Where is the line for disenfranchised grief and who draws the line? While this isn’t within the universe of the poem, the questions raised by Rajan are the same questions that underpin the social divide exposed by Chauvin’s crime. There’s a segment of our constituents who would argue that the outrage experienced by onlookers is disenfranchised grief; who gets to make that call? These are questions Rajan maps out for the reader before showing us that we alone can discern if our grief is grief or disenfranchise grief: we own our pain (“I peel this story from my body, / hang it up to dry.”).
Memory, the speaker tells us, is about the body, the present, the physical, what is right in front of us—she’d give a vertebra, her entire life on land, her entire ability to stand “on her own two feet” so to speak—to revise the body/memory—to forget. In “Women’s Grief Experiences: The Death of a Close Female Friend,” Elizabeth Sauber surveyed women who had lost close friends and found six major coping strategy themes employed by women and 71% of respondents engaged in “continuing bonds,” or finding ways to maintain their connection to departed friends. These activities ranged from keeping mementos to cooking the friends’ favorite meals or talking to their picture (2019). These activities are all throughout Rajan’s poem: wanting to immerse in grief, recounting the activities shared, staring at the ocean for hours–the speaker literally turns her name “to sand” (or shattered glass, a call back to the car crash that took her friend) in an effort to cope with the loss without losing her connection.
Like the reverting section headers and the looping language, the speaker in Rajan’s poem returns to her grief. She must carry on (write poems about sunshine, smile) but her breath (the force of life) rusts (oxidizes with exposure to grief/water). The depths of this piece–I read it dozens of times and it’s one I will return to. As I read this poem I did a little research on mermaids themselves. Water-dwelling fish folk are common across the globe. From Japan’s green Kappa’s to Cameroon’s river residents the Jengu, you can read about sixteen different mermaid stories from around the world at Book Riot. And for a break from the reading, take a listen to Mississippi John Hurt’s Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me. Don’t let the gentle upbeat melody of this song mislead you. Much like Gaia Rajan’s work, the more you spend time with it, the more meaning you’ll uncover.
And now for the Q & A:
1. Your readers are well acquainted with your ability to craft an image. What drew you first: the image or the message, in this poem?
As a kid, my favorite book was a book of illustrated myths from different traditions. One myth has stayed with me all these years: in the myth, a girl walked into the sea, intending to die, but turned into a mermaid instead. I remembered it down to the specific ink illustrations and the page number. But I had no idea what the myth was called, and I’d long misplaced the book. After talking to friends about the story, I knew I had to write a poem for it anyway. So I started with that opening image, that girl walking into the sea, and the poem unfolded from there. I started thinking about who owns grief, how memory and grief affect the body, and soon enough, the poem turned into an elegy for someone I’ve lost. After the poem was published, a friend was able to track down the myth: it’s the Greek myth of Thessalonike, who turned into a mermaid because her hair was dipped in the water of eternal life.
2. When considering the central image of this poem, we’re there elements about Mermaids that you wanted to avoid? Highlight? How did you decide?
Since I entered my draft with a commitment to the myth of Thessalonike, I more or less knew from the beginning that this was going to be a darker exploration of the mermaid image. Mermaids in pop culture are very often relegated to kids’ stories (I know and love the popular mermaid show H2O Just Add Water!) but I feel that they’re a very underrated lens through which to view grief and embodiment. Also, my poem at its core is also about growing up with loss, and I think the transformation of Thessalonike, her sudden and irreversible embodied change, is a really interesting metaphor for girlhood.
3. In this piece you use sections headed by Roman numerals, but the last two section headers are repetitions of the first two headers. Did this structuring device come to you in the first draft or through the revision process?
This element was an edit! I was thinking a lot about the form I originally chose to put it in—these neat little consecutive stanzas—and questioning why that was my impulse, and if it actually serves the poem. I realized that while I liked the space between “parts,” I didn’t like the implication that grief or embodiment are linear, so I decided to change the section headers to reflect that.
4. As you were drafting, were there any lines you loved that did not make it into the final draft?
My original draft mostly needed edits to prune the language to its barest shards; I don’t think I cut any lines that I really loved. I tend to overwrite when drafting, and editing for me is an attempt to pull back from that, and to trust the reader to make connections without too much exposition. I will say that I have a couple of poems in the draft stage right now that explore the myth in more precise detail, based in part on some of the lines I cut from the original draft of this poem.
5. What were you reading when you wrote this poem? What were you reading when you edited this poem?
While drafting, I was translating The Aeneid for class, and I was also reading Soft Science by Franny Choi and Good Boys by Megan Fernandes. I’m so in love with how Choi and Fernandes explore grief, and how they sit with the messy questions of trauma and the body and mutable time. And I was reading A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki when I edited this poem. I think my poem and the novel are loosely related in their attention to nonlinear time and embodiment. I was also deep in a reread of Cannibal, by Safiya Sinclair— such an incredible book, with so much beautiful sound at the surface of each poem.
6. Imagine this piece in conversation with non-literary pieces of art (i.e.: sculptures, music, paintings, etc). Can you tell me a little about who is in the conversation?
Oh, I love this question! For music, definitely “Stay Down” by boygenius (one of my favorite bands!), “Angela” by The Lumineers, “In This Body” by Paola Bennet, and “Wish that You Were Here” by Florence + the Machine.
And for visual art, The Viking’s Daughter, by Frank Stuart Church (I love the pale hauntedness and the seamless leap from girl to bird), the Infinity Mirrored Room by Yayoi Kusama (when I saw it at the Broad in Los Angeles, I was struck by the fragmentation and use of light). This poem also has a significant connection to the wonderful series The Haunting of Bly Manor, even though it was published prior to the show’s debut!
7. If you were to trace the lineage of this poem backward two generations, what four other pieces of literature would be in that family tree?
The parents of this poem are “How to Let Go of the World” by Franny Choi and “Killing Methods” by Ada Limon. And the grandparents of this poem would probably be “Half-Light” by Frank Bidart and “The Inside-Out Mermaid” by Matthea Harvey.