LitFest Part 2 – Re-Writing Grief

Karla Comanda on reading through grief and writing from grief in texts that are created in the slippages between fiction, life, and death.

When Glass Buffalo editor Matthew Stepanic sent out an e-mail to the magazine’s contributors, asking if they wanted to be part of Litfest’s CBC Centre Stage Spotlight on Rudy Wiebe, I immediately jumped at the opportunity – nevermind the fact I was mainly writing poetry and had always associated nonfiction with prosaic stylings. However, Matthew assured me that poetry can also be nonfiction, so I was completely on board after that. As an immigrant, I admit that I wasn’t too familiar with Rudy Wiebe’s works and his influence on Alberta’s literary landscape – in fact, that was only the second time I came across his name – so I thought that participating in the event would also be a great learning experience about one of the province’s great authors.

Reading Rudy Wiebe’s new novel, Come Back, proved to be a hard task for me. Loosely based on Wiebe’s personal tragedy, the story follows Hal as he continues to deal with his son Gabe’s suicide through his journals and letters almost 30 years after the event. I first opened the book in early October, which was the same month that my father passed away many years ago; this made identifying with Hal much easier for me although the circumstances of our losses could not be more different. I had to take long breaks from reading the novel because grief was such a prominent theme and because the way Hal dealt with his son’s death – sifting through his words, searching for tangible reminders, recollecting through triggers – hit too close to home for me.

In a way, reading Come Back was also serendipitous because it came at what I felt was an appropriate time and added another dimension to my yearly reflections: there’s something about grief and constantly trying to find answers and realizing that in the end, you don’t really know that person. Interestingly, poetry becomes an integral part of the story as Hal uses it to reflect on his son’s death. My piece for the event was a poem that was directly inspired by dealing with grief in the novel, and I transformed it according to my own experience. During the event, Wiebe talked about how we use our memories, events, and emotions in writing, and that when we write, we don’t usually try to replicate the events that we base our stories on. I felt like the letters and words on the page spoke to me, so I decided to take those and write a plunder verse poem about my father’s passing without necessarily recreating the event word for word. A plunder verse poem, also known as found poetry, is created when one takes letters and words out of a source text to create an entirely new piece, which may or may not reflect the original’s concepts or sentiments. In his talk, Wiebe also mentions that the new poem’s elements will recreate the sentiment or concept of the event for the reader. In particular, I chose one of Hal’s poems, where he ponders on Gabe’s journal entries, dated October 14, 1984: “what I want to do is get myself / together for my Oldman River quest, April 28, / 1985. There is no physical space in this world / that I seek; is it in the itch of the mind? (245)” Using those four lines as a starting point, I quickly got absorbed into the four pages of poetry that preceded and followed it, but it was the date that made me decide to write about this particular passage. For Gabe, October 14 was when he etched what looked like a new beginning with, or a return to, the Oldman River. At any rate, it seemed like a shred of revival, of hope, for the troubled young man after battling with depression for a long time. In my case, that date was the end; that was when my father was returned to us in a box. He was now an artifact.The source text makes extensive references to the natural landscape, juxtaposing it with urban elements at first, “Slowly the whiteskin leaned, leaned / down the July air into a green crash no one heard as / I pulled back and sensed a touch, just barely a steel touch on flesh,” (244) before abandoning it completely in favor of fresh, lush images of pastoral spaces. Since that was not my experience growing up, I decided to stick with the juxtaposition of the urban and rural throughout the poem, often giving the impression of the landscape as a condemned, decaying entity, which is particularly evident in the lines “i can still smell the pallbearing tumor from your cigarette / exhausts that rotted you into nothing but / bones, a blur of swamps vanished into / sclerotic soils,” and the closing lines, “i saw you / unleafing a pack of philip morris, / spewing ash on the floor – / go.” What I wanted to portray was a landscape that was malignant and chaining. I also wanted to make explicit references to cancer, which is what took my father’s life, hence the mention of tumors, cigarettes, and of course, the brand Philip Morris. I felt that this only added to the malignant atmosphere that I was trying to convey. I combed over the source poem for about three times before completing it, simply because there were letters and words that were begging to be used at every turn.(untitled)eight children kneel on flesh
and pray for taut skin, safety
in his copper box till god
bands from brittle skies
October 14: what i want to do
is rewind and hear your voice
in stereo once more. i have forgotten
how you crease your guffaws
into different breaths, but i can still smell 
the pallbearing tumor from your cigarette 
exhausts that rotted you into nothing but 
bones, a blur of swamps vanished into
sclerotic soils. what i want is for the dark
circles under your eyes be from a lack 
of sleep, not an excess, excess of it.
i want you to stop living in letters
and photographs because of a martyred
liver. alight into islands. 
every new moon, i carve spaces
in dreams so you can conjure 
mute memories, questioning 
the knots that held together 
what i know of you. i saw you
unleafing a pack of philip morris,
spewing ash on the floor —


Karla Comanda PhotoKarla Comanda is an emerging poet and a recent graduate of the University of Alberta, completing a degree in Comparative Literature, with a minor in Creative Writing. Her work has been published in Glass Buffalo and she has a poetry blog.

LitFest is an annual Edmonton-based literary festival that celebrates Canada’s  non-fiction literature and promotes Alberta’s literary production. It invites authors, publishers, scholars and the general reading public to engage in public dialogue for over ten days of readings, book launches, roundtables and tributes.

This year, the SNS was fortunate to have two young Albertan writers reflect on reading and writing non-fiction for our blog.  

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