York Prof. Priscila Uppal argues Canadians mourn differently

In her new book, We Are What We Mourn: The Contemporary English-Canadian Elegy, York English Professor Priscila Uppal looks at how contemporary elegists desire to reconnect with the dead, turning away from the usual conventions of elegy writing.

“Convention tells us that successful mourning is when you detach yourself from the loved object,” says Uppal (BA Hons. ’97, PhD ’04). But English-Canadian writers, rather than banishing the dead, are inviting them into their living rooms. They want to discover themselves through uncovering their past, their history and their relationship with the deceased loved one. To do that, they need to conjure up the dead and invite them in for a conversation.

“The work of mourning is, instead, performed with the goal of recovering the dead, a ritual enacted to continue dialogue and engagement with the dead loved one,” writes Uppal. But this is unique to Canada. Elsewhere, the goal is to separate from the dead. “Mourning practices are meant to sever the connection…so the dead don’t come back. In the English-Canadian elegies, we ask them to come back.”

In researching this, the first book to examine the elegies of English-Canadian writers, Uppal analyzed over 1,000 elegies and hundreds of poetry collections. She was surprised by the common thread of reconnection that ran through the elegies of English-Canadian writers from diverse cultural backgrounds since about 1967.

“The book really argues against a lot of the current psychology that says successful mourning means separation,” says Uppal. “You’re never through mourning, but it doesn’t have to be suffocating and limiting. It can be very creative, inspiring and an invigorating thing to do.” She says some in the field of psychology are now taking a second look at the edict and deciding the idea of closure is not so desirable after all. Many of the English-Canadian elegies call for us to mourn again and again. “So we develop a new relationship with the past which enables us to create the future.” It is memory creation rather than passive static remembrance. It’s a desire to connect, rather than cast off.

Right: Priscila Uppal

“The poem becomes this creative space for being in touch with something lost,” says Uppal. For English-Canadians, elegies are most often written about a lost parent (usually a father) a place or about cultural losses and displacements. American and English elegies are often about children or youth, and by young poets for older, influential poets who have passed on.

Uppal has a theory: “It’s because Canada is essentially a nation of immigrants. So we have a whole host of people reinventing themselves.” The elegy assists in those reinventions. “It sometimes invents something that was never attained in the first place, an ancestry or a place.” It could be the country or town of origin or victims of the Holocaust or slavery. Sometimes the elegies invent a parent because the poet didn’t really know them well. The elegy affords the opportunity to forge a relationship in death that wasn’t possible in life.

English-Canadian elegies can also be about ghost towns or a region where the writer has lived, such as Prince Edward Island or Calgary. Unlike American and English elegies, English-Canadian elegies are often about under-represented places or unnamed people. It’s a mourning of cities, rural landscapes and suburbs, a reconnection through language and through landscapes to something lost or undervalued. It’s a recreation of memory. In American elegies, so much of the emphasis is on the individual, says Uppal pointing to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”.

In Canada, poets who write elegies seem particularly attracted to the long-form poem or poetic sequences. “It’s like an extended meditation or extended investigation of the various ways to explore mourning and therefore engages a reader in multiple ways,” says Uppal.

There is a whole shift in mourning practices. “I think that mourning is basically a condition of modernity. I’m interested in how people cope and how they turn their grief into something positive,” says Uppal. “People are afraid of grieving. But if you’re not able to grieve you become numb, vacant and you’re ignoring a whole part of yourself.”

In We Are What We Mourn: The Contemporary English-Canadian Elegy, Uppal looks at the work of Margaret Atwood, Anne Carson, Anne Michaels, Sigmund Freud, Milton Acorn, Jeannette Armstrong, Paula Gunn Allen, Dionne Brand, Di Brandt, Leonard Cohen, Susan Griffin, Dennis Haskell and Robert Kroetsch to name a few.

A poet and a novelist, Uppal was shortlisted for the 2007 Griffin Poetry Prize for her collection of poems Ontological Necessities. She is the author of several poetry collections, including How to Draw Blood From a Stone, Confessions of a Fertility Expert, Pretending to Die, Live Coverage and the novel The Divine Economy of Salvation. Her most recent work of fiction is To Whom it May Concern (see YFile, Jan. 13).

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer