Section: Arts

Joyelle McSweeney opens up about grief and loss at reading

“The sound carries the meaning before you know what the words are,” Joyelle McSweeney said of her poetry following her reading in Cheever Room on Thursday. McSweeney, who is a poet, playwright, author and professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, as well as a 2022 Guggenheim Fellow, shared selected poems from her new collection Death Styles. The reading could be more aptly described as a performance, and she began her recitation by explaining that she is hearing-impaired, which contributes to her unique relationship with sound, language and spoken rhythm.

She prefaced her reading by contextualizing Death Styles as a follow-up to her 2020 collection Toxicon and Arachne, which is a double volume of poetry that she published after the loss of her newborn daughter. McSweeney wrote the poems in Toxicon in anticipation of the birth of her daughter, while the poems in Arachne were written in the aftermath of her loss. 

Death Styles acts as a sequel to this previous collection because it charts her return to poetry. McSweeney described finishing the last poem in Toxicon and Arachne and slamming her laptop shut in a fury. “I was so angry now at myself, that poetry had come back, and the baby hadn’t come back, poetry hadn’t brought the baby back, and I was like, you will not write anymore. You don’t get to have poetry. And like many poets’ curses, it held. So years went by, and there was not even the inkling of a poem in me,” McSweeney recalled. She gave herself three rules to begin writing again: write every day, don’t push away any inspiration — no matter how silly or embarrassing — and write until the topic is exhausted. With these rules in place, McSweeney wrote the series of poems that would become Death Styles.

She shared nine poems at the reading and explained to the audience that her inspirations ranged from the eclectic and bizarre to the totally mundane. She began with a poem entitled “On the Hooded Merganser, That Clock-Faced Duck.” The poem contemplates the connection between motherhood, self and birth as she becomes the hooded merganser, a striking duck with a black and white head, which inspired the piece. “I cried for my mother / when died my bright lyre / at eyerise the thought of her / streams thru the ether / like a yolk in its vapor / consumes its own sulphur,” Sweeney intoned as she recited part of the poem. 

Her cadence and inflections communicated just as much as her words, which seemed to be pulled from her lips by an inevitable force. When a student asked McSweeney about her unusual rhythm and the flowing nature of her phrases, she explained that she always writes by ear and sound. McSweeney’s words, though impactful on the page, plead with her and her readers to read them aloud, and give voice to living in the face of grief.

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