Danusha Laméris' "Dressing for the Burial"
Thoughts on the right-up-against.
TW: This poem references suicide.
Dressing for the Burial
No one wants to talk about the hilarity after death —
the way the week my brother shot himself,
his wife and I fell on the bed laughing
because she couldn’t decide what to wear for the big day,
and asked me, “Do I go for sexy or Amish?” I told her sexy.
And we rolled around on the mattress they shared
for eighteen years, clutching our sides.
Meanwhile, he lay in a narrow refrigerated drawer,
soft brown curls springing from his scalp,
framing his handsome face. This was back when
he still had a face, and we were going to see it.
“Hold up the black skirt again,” I said. She said, “Which one?”
And then she said, “You look so Mafia Chic,” and I said, “Thank you,”
and it went on until we both got tired and our ribs hurt and now
I don’t even remember what we wore. Only that we both looked fabulous
weeping over that open hole in the ground.
from Bonfire Opera (Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2020)
This whole book by Danusha Laméris stunned me. I bought it not long ago, and have read it over the past few days, and it is a book of such fervent joy placed alongside such intimate sorrow in a way that feels so pressing, so large, and so beautiful. I was torn, trying to decide about whether I wanted to write about this poem, or another poem — “Threshold” — which has these lines:
And I felt, in that moment,
what I can only call a terrible power, the burden
of holding something that requires a great tenderness.
Those three lines, part of a much longer poem, cemented themselves as some of the ones I will cherish for a very long time. This poem above is less like that poem. It is shorter, and is, in many ways, more shocking. Not shocking in a bad way — I think badness is so often subscribed to the word shocking, but shocking because this kind of relationship to death — though human — is very rarely pursued in writing. Or, at least, in what I have read, which is forever limited. But I love today’s poem. Because it’s real, and because it presents a humanness that I think is often shoved to the wayside. Because of what? Shame, maybe? Irreverence?
The first line of this poem — “No one wants to talk about the hilarity after death” — is such a brilliant first line. It presents the poem’s subject as taboo. It says what you are about to read is the thing no one talks about. And it says, implicitly, well, I am going to talk about it. And then immediately after, the poem centers the poem’s speaker as someone with a deep relationship — one of blood — to one of the poem’s subjects. It places the hilarity of the poem right next to the sorrow of the poem. And it makes both of these things — the hilarity and the sorrow — deeply personal. In this way, the poem is generous to us. No matter what we think of the speaker — maybe you judge the speaker, maybe you do not — we are, as readers, immediately cast into the role of witnesses. And we are witnessing something so inherently personal that, speaking for myself, makes my first instinct one of gratitude. As a reader of this poem, I am grateful for its generosity, for the way it allows me a window through which to view grief.
I think often of W.S. Merwin’s wonderful single-line poem titled “Elegy,” that reads, simply:
Who would I show it to.
It’s a beautiful, realistic plea of a poem. It says what is poetry good for, it cannot raise the dead. And yet, in contrast to that is something like Marie Howe’s poem (and book) “What the Living Do,” which offers these lines:
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of
groceries in the street, the bag breaking,
I've been thinking: This is what the living do.
That very idea — “This is what the living do” — is so present in Danusha Laméris’ poem. And what I love about Laméris’ poem is that very complex notion of humanness. I think the idea of “humanness” as a construct is often used to excuse behavior. Oh, people say, they’re human, as if to be human is to be excused of the actions of being human. But, in a more generous sense, the speaker of this poem and the wife of the brother are both human in their relationship to death and their relationship to grief.
The risk of this poem is that it foregrounds a relationship to grief that doesn’t feel, at first, like a serious one. It is a relationship of humor, and absurdity, and appearances. It is one in which jokes are made, and laughter is involved. It is off-putting at first because of the way that the society this poem lives within (and is critiquing) is taught to grieve. Death is final; therefore the grief that accompanies death must be appropriately solemn in order to convey that finality. And yet, as anyone who has been to a funeral — and, perhaps more particularly, a wake — knows, laughter is a necessity during the process of grief. And I think people consider laughter’s relationship to grief as one of deflection. But what if laughter is part of grief? What if joy is part of healing? I think often of how, when the mother of one of my best friends passed away, a few of us found ourselves throwing paper airplanes into the street outside the wake, making bets on how far they would go. We were drunk — on grief, alcohol, and each other — and we were also healing.
In the same way, this poem places that kind of joyous healing alongside the finality of death. That is the craft of it. That is what makes it a poem. The moments where it cuts from the absurd hilarity of the bedroom scene, and states things like:
Meanwhile, he lay in a narrow refrigerated drawer…
This was back when
he still had a face, and we were going to see it.
The craft of this poem is in the fact that it never lets us, the readers, forget the severity and finality of the scene. It is aware. It knows, that while the laughter is happening, there is something — a person, someone loved — that will never happen again. In this way, the poem is not a celebration of celebration itself; rather, it is a celebration of what must, what has to carry on.
I think often that one of the questions any poem inherently attempts to answer is: How do we make sense of what makes no sense? The fact of death exists, but death itself is a thing that makes no sense. It gives rise to more questions than answers. What happened? What happens now? Where do we go from here?
So much of poetry — poetry that I love, poetry that I write — responds to those questions with lament, or praise, or elegy, or eulogy. But very rarely do I encounter a poem that prioritizes the joy of those who carry on in the aftermath of death. To be clear, this joy is not a joy that rejoices in death. Instead, it is a joy that defines, yes, what it means to be human. This poem is not afraid of depicting that joy, that “hilarity,” in the face of the most tragic parts of being alive. Indeed, one of the simple (yet not simple) facts of life is that being alive means being a part of a group that is not dead yet. There could be guilt in this depiction of joy. There could be people who say: why are these people laughing. And yet — they are laughing because they are human, because they are alive. They are laughing not in spite of their grief, but because of it.
I love this poem because of that risk of joy, which should never be a risk, but still is. I love this poem, too, because it returns to the fact of grief. It holds space. It says:
I don’t even remember what we wore.
When Marie Howe writes “This is what the living do,” she is writing about the way the living carry on. The way they inhabit the mundane, the serious, the less serious. The way they cry and laugh. To say that grief must look a certain way is to say that life must look a certain way. But it doesn’t. Neither do. I love this portrait of grief because it is real.