Annotated Excerpts OF
Preemptive Elegy for a job and my Dad
To cry about someone you love is a thing; but, oh,
the mind’s shifting enchantress is something else.
To bitch about the pay cut is one thing; but, oh,
greed’s flabby bloating gut worm is something else.
Alarming indeed the administration’s stone approach
to transparency. Like sewing a wound with railroad
spikes. For my Dad, it’s not the cancer doing him in,
it’s the cancer treatment’s lazy approach to accuracy.
If you hit everything, everything gets hit, including
the violets who only wanted a clean well-lighted space
between the bricks. Including his hands that never
hit a living thing. To watch your father succumb
to mortality is one thing; but, oh, the heart’s steady
raging djembe spirit is something else.
. . .
is the beginning of beauty and terror. And the watching
helpless son-boy is one thing; but, oh, a father lost
and losing his body’s war is something else.
“To sing about someone you love is one thing; but, oh,
the blood's hidden guilty river-god is something else.”
—from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Third Elegy” (trans. A. Poulin, Jr.)
“And if I cried, who'd listen to me in those angelic
orders? Even if one of them suddenly held me
to his heart, I'd vanish in his overwhelming
presence. Because beauty’s nothing
but the start of terror we can hardly bear,
and we adore it because of the serene scorn
it could kill us with. Every angel’s terrifying.”
—from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “First Elegy” (trans. A. Poulin, Jr.)
To read “Preemptive Elegy for a Job and my Dad” in its entirety,
please order Reed Magazine Issue 154.
Matthea Harvey's Commentary
Writing an elegy means that someone vital has been lost. Writing a “preemptive elegy”
is somehow even more tragic. Scott Bade’s poem, “Preemptive Elegy for a Job and my Dad,” swirls together the speaker’s grief about the government, mortality, and art. Bade’s similes and metaphors are painfully precise: “Alarming indeed the administration’s stone approach / to transparency. Like sewing a wound with railroad / spikes” and “Is it fear in its finest dress, rain beading / on its padded shoulder coat?” Such specificity combined with such yearning and uncertainty is, as Bade might put it, “something else.”
in conversation with
Writing about grief is a difficult proposition for many poets. The feelings are so large and unmanageable that they leave many writers paralyzed and mute. Was this difficult for you, and if so, how did you work around this obstacle? Do you have advice for anyone who is trying to write through, or about, grief?
Indeed, grief seems a continent unto itself. Yet all will visit and some may never leave. I have to be honest and say the initial generation of the poem was not difficult. My father was undergoing immunotherapy for cancer. The most recent round of treatment really brought him down, so much so that my brother called me and the rest of the family: clearly, and as it turned out, rightly concerned. It was maybe a day after that phone call when I sat down for my morning pandemic writing session (I had been told to stop charging hours and use up my sick time). So I read and wrote nearly every morning in April 2020. The bones of the poem grew from the morning of writing on April 30. My father died less than a month later.
What I found then, and still do now, is that writing about grief is hard, but grieving is harder because it seems inescapable (which might be a good thing, actually). Anyone who’s grieved will tell you that at any moment something can trigger a memory and the loved one’s absence becomes monumentally present. And for a while those moments feel like punches to my gut. But I like the approach of honoring the dead in whatever way works for you—and hopefully, it involves art. Ross Gay’s “Burial” is a brilliant example of a poem that turns the poet’s grief and his father’s passing (and the father himself) into the bounty of fruit from a plum tree. That’s my advice: make the loss into art or at least something that can make you both sad and happy.
Rilke wrote his elegies one hundred years ago. I'm curious how well you think they hold up in the modern poetic landscape, and how they influenced your poem.
Rilke’s Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus (translated by A. Poulin, Jr.) is a book I’ve returned to countless times because its lyric intensity, like an elixir of language, never fails to inspire something in me. I’m by no means an expert on the current poetic landscape (or any poetic landscape). But if poetry is vast ocean (to borrow my friend Eric’s metaphor) then Rilke is something close to the whale shark: one of largest fish there is, not a shark at all, and one of the most utterly magical presences out there.
The elegy is an interesting poetic form: many people think of it as a poem of mourning, but in fact the definition is broader than that. When did you realize you were writing an elegy and not, say, a dirge or a threnody? And what does “elegy” mean to you?
Indeed, the elegy is an intriguing poetic form. Ed Hirsch in A Poet’s Glossary does an excellent job of providing a condensed history and evolution of the form (and its relatives). His exclaimed question is particularly accurate: “How many dead paternities stalk like ghosts through the precincts of American poetry!”
Do you have a daily writing practice or schedule, or do you write only when the spirit moves you? Could you describe how this works for you?
My writing schedules and practices have evolved (and appear to be continually evolving) over the years. First, I make it a priority to read, at the very least, one poem every day. Often this turns into more than one, not surprisingly. I journaled for several years, mostly daily, and used that activity and space to generate material that became poems. But I have to be honest and say that I no longer write every day. However, because I teach poetry and writing, I’m never far from the ideas, language, and activities of making this art so I don’t have too much difficulty in jumping into a poem when moved and/or when an assignment is due. For instance, when I give my students assignments, I usually contribute too. I’m a working writer, so I must show my students that I, too, am doing the work of writing.
Something I found that has worked well for me for almost the past nineteen years has been NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month. Back in 2003, my fiction-writer friend encouraged me to participate. I told him there’s no way I’m writing a novel. He said “It’s just about getting something on the page.” Since then, I’ve spent every November writing each morning for as long as I can (or am allowed to) with a single goal of just generating writing that will be used for poems. At the end of the month, I put the document away and don’t open it until after the New Year. It’s worked wonderfully for me as I always have something to discover and dig through, but which is not an attempt at a poem.
How has the pandemic affected your writing?
Because my job and duties were significantly reduced when everything shut down, I, like many folks, became suddenly rich with blocks of time to fill. So each morning in the early months of the pandemic, I sat with my coffee in the living room, trying not to focus on the [pandemic] numbers but still checking them anyway. And then I would read poetry for twenty minutes with the single intent of finding something in the writing that I could use as a leaping point into writing. And then I’d write. This is the exact process that led to the generation of “Preemptive Elegy for a Job and my Dad.” On the larger scale, the pandemic has reinforced and clarified for me how interconnected we are and—there is both good and bad in this—how small we’ve made this great earth become. In an obvious and very frightening way, any illusion of separateness has once again been laid bare.