Thursday, March 22, 2018



You Envelop Me by Laynie Browne
(Omnidawn, 2017)

John Keats knew he was dying when he wrote his greatest ode, “To Autumn.” Read one way, the ode is an early elegy for himself, or perhaps for life, life’s long summer. The poem drifts suspended in that late, warmish, lingering atmosphere, a haze of mist and poppy-fume and chafing-dust. Keats’ harrowing achievement is to have encoded in a song about death, death’s suppression; indeed, his morbid poem is a cornucopia of ripe fruit and grains and cider, and teems with bird and insect-life. And yet, in the tradition of moralistic still life painting, flies buzz tunelessly above all that laden plenty, a memento mori of your dying day—or, as Keats has it: “…Thou, [Autumn,] hast thy music too,—/ While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, / And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue; / Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn / Among the river sallows, borne aloft…”. No matter how much the dying poet lingers on the rich living plenty of the harvest, the obverse of abundance is rot. In “To Autumn,” Keats inaugurates a variation of elegy that suppresses death in order to speak on it. These, his last words, protract the process of decay, of life-unto-death, by dilating on full-to-bursting ripeness.

And yet, Keats’s poem does not look backwards, as though “To Summer.” It is address “To Autumn.” Keats proffers the provender of summer with the death of winter fully in view. Read another way, then, Keats’s self-elegiac ode knows that to write of death, toward death, one writes from life. That is, one cannot help but write life as one writes death.

Thus, if to elegize is to fructify, the agon of “To Autumn” is the work of harrowing—where to “harrow” means to mortify, but also to till the soil, as with the tines of a harrow-tool.

In her book-length elegy, You Envelop Me, Laynie Browne dilates on this and other paradoxes that shadow the work of elegy: a work that harrows in both senses of the word, fructifying while also tearing to shreds the soul. Sometimes addressing herself, sometimes her dying stepmother, and sometimes referring to herself in third person in a way that blurs critically the mourner with the one mourned, Browne (Browne’s speaker) roves within the formal field of the elegy seeking some means to reconcile abundance and loss, the strangeness of abundance—all that is still there—that ensues as aftermath of absence: “She does not know how long anything lasts—passing—obligatory harrowing waves crushes. You could say winnowing, if she were chafe, hewn, risen and felled.”

Browne’s grieving subject is the threshed and chafing ample grain of her own grief. Just so, You Envelop Me is a panoply of vibrancy—the opening pages are filled with the presence of angels and birds and textiles and treasures—even as it tries to work through the death and deep absence of a loved one. The jarring tension to which Browne exposes us in You Envelop Me is the insatiable abundance of the world that rims around and shadows every total loss.

I repeat: this book tries to work through death, and registers that work. Beyond the scope of You Envelop Me, Browne is recognized as a poet committed to the idea of poetry as a daily, serial practice. The nine series of elegies that comprise this book are conceived as compulsive “mourning practices.” Browne is careful enough to enshrine the absurd irony of the mourning-practice-poem, where trying “work through” death daily results in beautiful (artificial) artifacts—where absence results in presence. When there should be mournful silence, there is instead the bird-like cacophony of poetry about mourning and silence; there is

A book—whose wings—swallow me
Bird, created from water mixed with sand
Use of wings, and claws hold oil for lamps
Conceiving a wing-ed book is beginning to sort one’s thoughts
An egg placed under the foot of a bedframe—to steady
Quills for writing were unknown in Talmudic times
Birds of three hundred and sixty-five hues read
Headlines or psalms as an indistinguishable combination of
Affliction, concentration and praise
“Flee as a bird to your mountain.”

In the first two series of her book, “Owl Pages,” and “You Envelop Me,” Browne blends the figures of Book and Bird in the search for guardianship and divination. By this logic, when she makes her books of poems, Browne makes singing birds:

Beaked-ed, like a troubadour, tawny
Incisors or vise grips within, please
protector, protect—her—accompany
our—occupy, escort us with sound
providing vintage, hand-drawn guides to—

These birds become significant of protection, Protectors, as they may have been for ancient augurs, who looked to birds in flight for omens. The bird-poem protects, the bird-poem prophesies obscurely. Browne looks to her daily poems for omens, too—knowledge of what to do; what is there to do beside the death-bed, or grave-side, or, more typically, at home, afterward, when life returns to normal, but you don’t, for there is this paralyzing new absence there to reckon with. These poems try to reckon—to know, in order to act:

                                                No act was undertaken
            without advice of
                                    augury, prophesying

Open a window
                                                among Chaldeans, Greeks, Romans
that the breath may
                                                augur = avi-gur…
                                                sing, whisper

            “for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings
                                                shall tell the matter.”

I read the nine sections of You Envelop Me as a series of essays, or attempts to “tell the matter,” to make sense of senseless, desensitizing loss. The work is to work through—to work until there is no more work to do. The work, in this case, is grief—a reconciliation of the living and the living and the dead. In an interview with Omnidawn’s Rusty Morrison, Browne reminds us how difficult this work is, since it so alters the field the poet works in—that is, the world. Writing her book, Browne “wondered how it is that in mourning one may walk through a landscape identical to the landscape one navigated before loss, yet this landscape is irrevocably altered.” What Browne’s work bears witness to is what comes after this landslide: “Where irreplaceable love is lost new understanding opens. Empathy opens.” Browne states that in You Envelop Me, she “wanted to share both the narrowing and broadening of perception” of the loss of a loved one and the subsequent inrush of understanding that can come after. The surprising consequence of this elegiac labor is a deep re-sensitization.

But the bittersweet fruits of this book don’t fall all at once. Browne registers the extreme difficulty of elegy, as well as the deep concurrent risks. To illustrate this difficulty, Browne employs the Dickinsonian dash throughout this collection, though in a manner wholly her own. Browne’s dash fragments and contradicts and interrupts more forcefully and awkwardly than Dickinson’s. Take, as two examples:

Please allow her to rest
Lower your eyes and your courtesy and let her—
Lower your voice and stop flipping the
pages of her bedside…


I can sit buy this window and by this bed and by my mother dying because my fingers and my life have been given to me. For how long is—naught. I am grateful for the room, the radiance, even as she—. I can see her breathing.

In both passages, Browne uses the dash to represent the repressive denial of the mourner. The dash turns away from the reality of death, of quietus ( what it might mean to just “let her (rest/die)”) because the speaker cannot bear to look, acknowledge, affirm, ascent. A friend of mine describes Dickinson’s dashes as little graves dug in the page. Browne’s are more like lines-of-flight that try to overleap grave. Indeed, “even as she (dies),” still: “see her breathing.”

When Browne stops herself from broaching the subject of death, it’s not because she is afraid or embarrassed or ashamed. Rather, she knows the grave risks of trespass that attend the difficult work of elegy: “I've seen this bleat and recombine. I have far too many words. And how to escort them—delicate membrane. We who are between—appalled. I know this song in which no one approaches her.” The worst trespass in the work of elegy is not walking indecorously over a grave, but non-approach: to miss the cemetery altogether.

Browne knows that broaching death can breach the dead—and vice versa; Browne knows how a dead “she” can breach the living “she,”: “She begins so many things she disintegrates…Her impulse is dispelling again with form, formlessness.”  Thus while writing death, Browne writes, “Beware of yourself.” Beware of what you can do, but also be wary of what can happen to you.

Even as Browne prescribes certain rituals and mourning practices to account the aftermath of absence—“If you love someone who has died, cling to the body, embrace the corpse, cut a lock of hair from her head, and once the body is removed, continue to speak to her every day”—she knows that clinging too tightly precludes the openness made possible by absence. Indeed, open “empathy” comes simultaneous to the realization of the risks of grief: “She holds the other she's hands, but never touches anything. You're – still – here , she says. Almost an apology.”

As this latter passage indicates, all throughout You Envelop Me, Browne seeks contact with the one dying and the one dead—although less in the terms and sense of a Sandoverian séance. Instead, as this book begins to realize that mourning is concurrent with morning—that loss flowers forth as fruit and draws bright birds to its branches—the poet learns that presence can be the bright enshrinement of absence. Browne’s second-to-last section is a cosmogony that recapitulates the re-formation of the universe. Indeed, in five billion years (or yesterday, when you passed away) even after the sun “dies,” after the earth is “engulfed,” after “Venus and Mercury are absorbed by the sun,” still there is florescence and inflorescence: “Dewdrops form on the tips of grass blades / too vast for us to fathom,” and the “tidal interaction of the sun and closely orbiting planets / models the behavior of two types of dewdrops….” In the logic of You Envelop Me, the aftermath of harrowing cataclysm is the world re-worlded.

When all of creation is signifier of an absent signified, light itself—reflecting off the glossy variegated plumage of every new thing, the “rainbow body in the mirror of death”—becomes the means of making contact with the one absent. Thus Browne concludes:

Sea-urchin-shaped nanoparticles
excite chlorophyll to emit red light

Most of the verdance in sunlight is reflected
by leaves, greening them to our eyes

Trees lining roads luminescent at night

Your portrait returns as electromagnetic energy

Illuminated sleep provides a daguerreotype
emitted in a threefold spectrum:

Ultraviolet: invisible to the eye—spiritus, blast, breath, above blue
Visible: where you are now hidden— silvered copper plate
Infrared: vibrational coal stove —skin

The last word in a book about the loss of a loved one is “skin.” In You Envelop Me, nature abhors a vacuum: presence cannot help fill the hole left by loss. Brought to light, the new abundance sown by the harrowing work of elegy makes visible the one who was hidden. The miracle of this book is not the resurrection of the dead, but rather the miraculous resplendence of death itself.


Kylan Rice has an MFA from Colorado State University, and he is working on his PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His book reviews have been published by Colorado Review, West Branch, Carolina Quarterly and the Emily Dickinson Society Bulletin. Some of his poems can be found at Kenyon Review, The Seattle Review, and elsewhere.