THE HISTORY OF POETIC biography is a spotty one--especially when it comes to one's own family. What is, after all, the distinction between biography and excavation?
Sharon Olds has written movingly and revealingly about her own life, and in particular, her parents. Sylvia Plath, sure. We know her stance on one of her parents. David Ray's heartstraining homage to his son Sam, who died at a far too early age, (Sam's Book) is an unforgettable tribute to a child.
But, poetry books about siblings are harder to recall, save Wordsworth. Perhaps because poems about brothers and sisters are not as immediately dramatic as those about parents and offspring we tend not to think of them as wearing the same fabric but yet, most of us are siblings--in fact, maybe there are more siblings than parents.
Cristina Garcia's The Lesser Tragedy of Death does important work in this regard because it stands as a model of what an honest, aesthetically figured book about a sibling might look like.
Known for her culturally and politically rich novels like Dreaming In Cuban, Garcia has never been coy about family (at least not in her fiction). Her first book of poems, though, takes familial confrontation to a whole new level. The entire project is devoted (and I mean devoted in all of its many meanings) to her brother's main devotion--addiction. Searing, angry, compassionate, probing, and, ultimately forgiving, The Lesser Tragedy of Death is a bold book about a frightening topic--the loss of a brother (which also means the loss of a part of the self) to crime, addiction, and despair.
Divided into three sections, the book traces, chronologically, Garcia's brother's map of personal dysfunction. Beginning with his childhood and moving through adolescence, adulthood, and into the present day, Garcia alternates moves, deftly, from investigation to indictment to inquiry. In "Mugging," for example, we see all of these and more:
It was a cold night in New Hampshire and you
were looking for an easy mark.
An old woman, head to toe in black, a widow
maybe, hobbled down the street.
What did you imagine was in her huge, black
purse with the tarnished clasp?
A just-cashed Social Security check? Her month's
allotment of twenties?
You didn't expect her to put up a fight and when
she did, you dragged her ten feet.
The poem ends with an observation, free of commentary, that gives the reader a glimpse into the complicated dynamic of the brother and the family:
You called our father from the county jail to bail
you out, but he didn't.
None of us did.
One of the many fascinating aspects of Garcia's book is the degree to which the poet seems to shoulder some sort of responsibility for her brother's life. Or, if responsibility is too strong a word, suffice it to say that the poet often feels implicated. In the riveting poem "Twelve Years Ago," Garcia recounts a time when she was newly divorced with a young daughter and her brother came to stay with them. The stay causes her daughter deep anxiety (she "defecated on the kitchen floor. Wouldn't sleep alone. / Had nightmares when she did") so Garcia makes the brother leave. The poem closes with a couplet that seems to speak not just about the immediate removal but older, more profound forms of abandonment:
Perhaps you never forgave me.
Perhaps you never could.
The companion poem, "Fried Rice," begins in and ends with harrowing statements that are connected by the most real and most perplexing of questions. The poem begins, "You tried to hack off your arm with a butcher's knife" and closes with "Your history is mine too." In between those lines lie two great questions many of us with siblings have no doubt posed:
Why can't I remember more
about you? The tens of thousands
of hours you've been my brother?
I love that realization--that the history of violence the brother has enacted upon himself is also Garcia's history. And I love that the answer (or at least the potential answer) to so many questions is, like the brother, unreachable, unrecoverable.
Based on what I've quoted, the book might come off as ultra-violent (it's not) or self-indulgent (it certainly is not). In fact, it's far from it. Rather, The Lesser Tragedy of Death is a groping. It is a mining expedition. It's a kind of personal excavation, a search for the mineral of understanding, the gold dust of revelation.
And, what makes it artful and memorable is the marriage of style and story. Her history as a fiction writer comes in handy here. The book feels like a novel. And yet, it moves like poetry. Garcia's language is precise, her insights marvelous. Her line breaks startle, and the way she uses stanzas and form actually helps propel the story.
This is a bold project not just because Garcia has the courage to take on her sibling--her own arm she has no doubt tried to hack off--but also because she chooses to do so in poetry.
I found this collection wholly engrossing, often shocking, and, though wrenching, ultimately gratifying