How do we write about death? Explain the inexplicable without sounding overwrought, cliché, false? Perhaps we don’t. Perhaps we avoid it, dance around it, mask it in metaphor until any real substance is lost. If this is the case, we might take direction from Beth Steidle, whose recent novel, The Static Herd, addresses the paradox of death with paradoxes of its own: a fusion of medicalese and poeticism, insight and obfuscation. Comprised of CT scans, “OPERATIVE REPORTS,” distilled memories, and dreamlike drawings, the book catalogues artifacts of death—opens a museum of them—and leads us through its haunting halls.
The Static Herd is a slim book, only eighty-two pages long. And those eighty-two pages echo with white space. Steidle’s deliberate sparsity, however, renders every word, every image, especially resonate. Excerpts from hospital records—documenting age, sex, DOB—queue with bloodless authority. Tiny CT scans, often smaller than a dime, leer from the blank desolation of an otherwise empty age. And black and white drawings of deer—the story’s guiding motif—tip-toe through the narrative, their bodies rendered in patchy segments, at once gorgeous and grotesque.
Steidle’s prose holds a similar charge, conveying the unsightly with terse lyricism. “He was wild when they found him,” reads the opening section. “Crawling like a wounded deer in the middle of the road. A clot of tumor lodged in an airway. There was blood and vomit on his face and chest.” As the scene unfolds, we see this man—an unnamed father—taken to a hospital, and then the family members who orbit his world. If the novel makes anything certain, it is that death does not only happen to the dying. “Later, after the kitchen was renovated, [the daughter] painted a forest around the border,” the section concludes, an act to which her dying father objects. She answers, “but you’ve always wanted to die out in the open.”
The openness that follows is Steidle’s willingness to probe all aspects of a man’s gradual passing. The book is tremendously honest in this sense, offering its readers a startling range of data, both medical and emotional. For instance, a section titled “FINDINGS,” reads:
There is a partial effacement of the sylvian fissure on the left at the level of the basal cisterns. There is mass effect. The appearance is concerning. The sylvian fissure cleaves the world in two. Memories of birth swirl at the base of the trench. There is black water. The appearance is concerning for hemorrhage. There is occasional, sublime flicker. Yes. Stuffed to the gills with longing. A sudden streak of light minnows until it encounters. There is a heterogeneously high attenuation mass 4.2 x 4.9 x 4.5…
This blurring of institutional jargon and hallucinatory imagery asks us to reconsider what kind of information is actually useful in the face of death. Both “findings” are attempts to describe the events at hand—a father’s deteriorating condition—but ultimately, neither can fully articulate the experience. What does “sylvian fissure on the left at the level of the basal cisterns,” really mean? Well we know what it means, a kindly doctor could provide a definition, but ultimately the clarifying abilities of the information are equivalent—or perhaps even lesser—to “a sudden streak of light minnows until it encounters.”
The Static Herd’s appreciation for “fact”—its eventual futility—is part of what makes the book so poignant. We sense meaning in every syllable, every CT scan, and yet meaning still eludes us. We are not told what to think. Rather, we are given things to think about. Is there a more apt way of conveying the experience of death? The vastness of what we know is overwhelmed by the even greater vastness of what we don’t. Death’s overarching narrative is at the discretion of its beholder.
And yet, The Static Herd’s variability of form and content also reflects an urgency to understand, against all odds. The challenge of fully interpreting death might account for the book’s willingness to explore so many hybrid forms: an embodiment of the human instinct to search for answers, even in the face of unanswerability. The almost maddening repetition of CT scans, for instance, conveys a kind of literal and figurative dissection—the breaking of the whole into component parts—while other aspects of the book seek to apply order and structure to a family’s psychic chaos:
HISTORY: 1. The yellow dog was flung out of a car in the middle of the night. Where I come from we say the thing that was dropped. 2. My father named his dog after his grandfather, the ghost. 3. For nine years, the dog left the bodies of small mammals and portions of larger ones on the front steps. For nine years deer legs piled up on the lawn. Formed a static herd, bore up the invisible husks of upper halves. 4. Our bellies are full of pine needles and air. The heart is only a cave with four chambers where jealous eels nest. 5. What is held inside the mouth. What returns between the teeth. If and so, according to the transitive property.
As readers of The Static Herd, we too become clinicians, family members, detectives. We too try to make sense out of the expiration of a life—the weakness of the physical body and wild strength of memory—but invariably, a cohesive narrative darts just out of reach. “Death was defiance,” writes Virginia Woolf, in Mrs. Dalloway. “Death was an attempt to communicate, people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded; one was alone. There was an embrace in death.” There is an embrace, likewise, in The Static Herd: the prickly hug of fact, the caress of imagination. And while we too may feel the “impossibility of reaching the centre,” we nonetheless charge forward—towards our greatest unknown—a testament to the excellence of Steidle’s latest work.
The Static Herd, by Beth Steidle. New York, New York: Calamari Press. 82 pages. $12.00, paper.
Allegra Hyde’s stories and essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Missouri Review, Southwest Review, Passages North, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She serves as prose editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review and curates similes at allegrahyde.com.