This starkly designed and possibly too-hefty tome of personal memoirs is yet another essential addition to literature on illness, accident, suffering, death, grief, mourning and survival. When I first heard of the call for this anthology I interpreted it as asking for writing on near-death experiences only and so was a bit surprised on reading the book to discover there were also pieces on the death or near-death of those close to the writer, a decision (was it?) that perhaps over-extended the focus of the collection in the aim of making it a certain length, or maybe the thematic direction merely became more expansive as Gardiner assembled the anthology. Although I don’t usually review prose, I make an exception for primarily poets who write a novel (say Heather Haley) or poets who compose essays like Gardiner herself (as often the prose that is written or even selected in this fashion verges on the poetic.) Thus, many of these essays are composed almost as a series of prose poems, from Adrian M Zytkoskee’s gorgeously detailed and anaphoric “The Things she left Behind” with its repeated refrain, “she left behind…” to Rachel Rose’s paean to her drowned childhood friend that contrasts the blunt statement of “When she came back he was dead” with the exquisite lyricism of “The lilies were tall and white and left traces of burnt orange pollen on my hands.” Pieces like Jane Mellor’s and Nikki Reimer’s push even further into the territory of song, staccato-ing their lineation, stuttering out melodies of loss: “There is no right time./To die. To call. To tell”; “I made him up. He is dead. He was never real. He is dead.” Amanda Earl’s memoir “After Survival” even brilliantly melds excerpts of her poetry: “limbs needled and pinned until numb quasimodoed/cactus-hived skin itch” with matter of fact depictions of her almost-death from a terrible virus – “I had full body sepsis and a toxic megacolon that had to be removed.”
I wonder how the poetic intensity of so many of these essays will affect the intended demographic of readers, the projected audience for this work? Gardiner also includes memoirs from several of the writers and activists she has encountered in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, such as John Mikhail Ashfour and Jennie Chantal Duguay, their perspectives offering an alternate approach to the more typical picks of anthology compilers. How an editor selects and organizes their vision in any compilation is endlessly intriguing. And, for the most part, Gardiner succeeds in creating a textured, and moving, voicing of this vital material, though some pieces, like Keira Miller’s “An Introduction” feels vague and unfinished, and others such as Bruce Meyer’s overly busy recollection, “Sweet River of Red,” is marred by distracting typos. I found too that I yearned for section markers that collected these texts into the vastly differing experiences, to my mind, of actually surviving a near-death terror and of enduring the death or the fresh knowledge of mortality delivered harshly to you by the accident or illness of a loved one. The internal organizations of the essays are quite effective though, both in variety and in the incorporation of the visual. Lisa Neighbour uses excerpts from philosophers and pictures of her “final quote” knives to separate temporalities; a. rawlings includes photographs of boats and icebergs that signify the development and exhibition of an artistic project on cancer; C.M Faulkner marks the division of segments with Latinate numerals and dates in the manner of case files.
The latter two memoirs were indeed several of my favourites in this diverse collection, as was the beautifully composed “Full Belly, Empty Sky: Death and Parenthood” by Ben Gallagher, an enactment of what I call true “emotional scholarship,” evoking theories from Zazie Smith to Stuart Hall to explore how “Death is [a] letting go of the many futures you believed in.” Other strong essays are Jessica Michakofsky’s painfully tangible (but slightly out of place in this anthology) “Goodnight Stars, Goodnight Air” about her son’s descent into addiction and Tanis McDonald’s movements between her mother’s death and the AIDS crisis. And the plangently fierce preface by Gardiner herself, from whom I longed for an entire piece in deeper detail on her experience with an almost deadly blood clot in her brain. Against Death is first and foremost about living on, about those who continue to exist to honour those who’ve passed beyond these sensory realms. I’m thrilled that we are continuing to elaborate our own Canadian oeuvre on this impossible-to-deny topic, this subject we must face gracefully, courageously, ragingly, with all the power of our art and lives.