Otherlight (YesYes Books, 2023) by Jill Mceldowney takes the reader through a narrative taken to the very end of the world, the very height of one’s emotions and before they plunge into a compressed sea morose the reader is instead propelled into the cosmos to marinate in the intensity of sentiment and in the acceptance of such intensity one finds something deeper than simple comfort. Instead, one finds a rugged strength beyond fear. For only when vulnerable can we reflect on our own power, or indeed, how we can regain power, strength and stability when power eludes us. Mceldowney places the reader at the core of a ravenous, grandiose grief that swells and swells as one begins to descend into the ruminative depths of Otherlight.
Lightning so angry half the lights floated
blacked, flickered, came back
and I filled my bathtub with water in case of a true outage,
an emergency-emergency. Why were you
at the bottom of those pools that—in the dark—
beware me of blood? I look to the water. I see
you clawing at your own throat,
He’s in a better place.
What better—what life
after this—too late
for naloxone, too late for Heaven,
new earth. I sit here perpetually
inventing lives more terrifying to live—
as if reality were not enough. (2)
Mceldowney wrestles with the philosophical questions that leave many awake at night searching, longing for concrete truths to an existence where meaning is subjective and this life does not guarantee another beyond this fleshy vehicle. Whilst this questioning is metaphoric and philosophically driven, it also reflects the innately human ability to imagine the worse or rather, the ever worsening. This returns the reader to the cyclical like nature of grief that often feels ceaseless. Grief is returned to within the psyche until all unanswered questions have been marinated upon and dissected. Until all pain is muted and tears become a forgotten memory of saline depletion.
A ghost leaves your body and never returns—
this is a lie.
A person has to earn
the right to forget.
What if, from now on,
I subscribe to that specific turn-of-the-century-belief
that illness is caused by spirits—
use this to explain why
I tried to protect your body with mine: My life for yours,
No matter where that promise would have taken me
I would’ve made it. I would’ve
slept forever for you to live.
I’m sorry I lived (13)
Mceldowney touches on an intriguing ‘survivors guilt’ whereby the narrator tries, seemingly in vain, to cope with this separation, this unspooling of connection broken by the mortal veil. Grief here is presented as morosely reflective and driven by a compulsion for peace of mind, for a return of the departed to the land of the living. This guilt is one where surviving is made even more challenging, even more grief-stricken due to its constant gnawing at the back of the narrator’s mind and body, heart and soul.
“I loved you. I love you. You were.
And you are.”
—Mary Jo Bang, Elegy
No photos of us
looking happy—like we forgot
we were there. And still, I think about him when I’m not
I touch my face, the side of my throat the places his hands have been
hold what I should forget I remember
no canary in the coal mine, no proof but the water
acting weird again, smelling like blood, running at strange hours—
no one else there
when he stayed awake all night to check my pulse,
no one else illuminated the cities at the center of me.
Did I dream up
birds of warning, birds of no tomorrow, birds in my gut,
in my hair, his hands in— of his
kiss on every finger, his fingers to my pulse? (24)
The aforementioned extract affirms a delicate devotion that Mceldowney places emphasis on to highlight that even in death, one’s actions, one’s being remains imprinted into the living. Whether through touch or action, Mceldowney paints a hauntingly striking image of what remains long after a body has been surrendered to damp soil.
Mceldowney makes the reader contend with the stark reality that we often ignore in favor of living freely without fear of that assured ending, that sudden shift into the unknown. For this alone Mceldowney should be commended. Further, Mceldowney allows for the reader to understand that grief, whilst life-consuming, does change in nature. It does evolve to be named and harnessed beyond its fury.
If the Dead Were in the Room I Would Say
I don’t want to say goodbye to you
but I can’t take another night, another flashback
to the rooftop swimming pool looking over Millennium Park,
trees wrapped in lights
can’t take another illusion
I love you so much and I don’t want to leave you
but I am still hoping to live, still hoping to be
something—someone I don’t have to be sorry for.
I promise I will talk to you every day,
I will answer
the telephone when it rings. I will write letters,
carve your name in the ice, stand in the rain, look always for your ghost—
though you’ve waded so far past where my feet can touch.
I won’t forget. (76)
Otherlight is a collection that quite literally makes the reader contend with death and living in another light. Whilst this evocative narrative fights against the surging tide of grief, it also shows just how resilient one becomes in the face of it as time progresses. As life continues beyond the departed. This is a stellar collection that should be on your reading list! This book comes out on August 15, 2023 but is available now for pre-order.