Mourning and medieval metaphor

Godfrey’s Oubliette offers poetic fragments from the abyss of loss

Supplied photo - Hannah Godfrey is the author of Oubliette, a new book about grief.

It’s nearly impossible to describe grief without metaphor. Perhaps this is a testament to the failure of literal language to capture something so profoundly complex.

Oubliette, a recent publication by author Hannah Godfrey, artfully likens the experience of loss to the eponymous medieval dungeon, a place where one feels both imprisoned and forgotten.

The recent collection of poetic insights, exchanges, citations and recollections bears witness to her journey through the grief leading up to her mother’s (Ericca Godfrey) death.

In the book, Godfrey explains that the oubliette serves as a symbol for what is lost when one loses the person who understands them best.

“Suddenly, drastically, I will become unknown— not forgotten, but forever lost— when she dies,” the text reads.

The text originated from a notebook kept by the author.

“I would talk to my mum every day, and she would say things, and I began to write them down,” Godfrey says.

Oubliette assembles a diverse array of quotes on grief, drawn from varied sources including Roman philosopher Cicero, writer James Baldwin and artist Derek Jarman.

Speaking on her citational process, Godfrey explains that “they created almost like little incisions for grief to come out of, to like a letting.”

While Godfrey draws quotes from an eclectic mix of sources, literary critic Roland Barthes serves as a key influence on the work.

“I didn’t connect with a lot of grief culture,” Godfrey says. “But reading Barthes’ Mourning Diary was really beautiful. When I read that, I realized I could use the structure that he had used ... he’d written these thoughts down about his own mother, and they were just assembled in this fragmentary way.”

Despite the heartbreaking premise of Oubliette, moments of levity are interwoven throughout. The emotional turbulence it evokes is often juxtaposed with humour, mirroring the unpredictable and contrasting nature of grief itself.

A passage in the text reads, “Alexa playing the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ instead of ‘The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ so loudly it couldn’t hear Mum telling it to turn it off,” followed by, “Choosing her funeral music.”

Godfrey recalls memories that are subtle moments: a desert rose brought back from Tunisia, the yogurt-maker fad of the 1980s, a close encounter with a homicidal wart hog (“a great warty one”) – all the kind of impressions that incidentally endure and become the most vivid over time.

Poet Aracelis Girmay’s quote in the text mirrors Godfrey’s sentiment.

“What can we do but sing of details, all of them minor, in the year of salt & death—.”

Oubliette is written with wit and grace, steering clear of clichés often associated with loss. Rather than offering profound epiphanies, Godfrey generously invites readers into her intimate documentation of grief in real time.

Join Hannah Godfrey on Nov. 20 for the launch of Oubliette at McNally Robinson Booksellers (4000-1120 Grant Ave.), where the book is available for purchase.

Published in Volume 78, Number 09 of The Uniter (November 9, 2023)

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