There is no telling what anyone’s reaction to death will be, but for many putting pen to paper helps process the void that is felt in someone’s absence. For Valerie Mejer Caso, Edinburgh Notebook is a testament to the power of language’s ability to heal and to help come close to answering the questions we thought grief would silence us from asking. Written in the wake of her brother Charlie’s suicide, Mejer Caso’s collection, through honest language and hallucinatory imagery, examines the consequences of uncertainty and sorrow when those we love the most are gone.
To get a sense of the book’s approach and direction, you don’t have to look further than the second poem, “From the Mountain,” where the speaker states, “Because I suffer, it makes senses.” Death, the act of death, and the effects of death (“it”) aren’t always easily understandable, but what follows is the only sense that can be made of the confusion when life comes to an end. In “December, 5 p.m., Edinburgh,” the speaker questions her brother’s suicide and asks what it all means:
His last thoughts?
The strange formation of clouds? The window, waiting?
Nothing, nothing, nothing? Or the faces of his boy and girl?
Lucid thoughts: “I’m sorry for causing so much trouble
and grief, it is the end of the road for me. If I ever saw
myself as a crusader, I’m a fool.”
Lucid thoughts: “I’m going nowhere,
I have no prospects in life.
There doesn’t appear to be any clear indication that the brother left a note for anyone who might find him, which is the reason why these lucid thoughts are necessary: they help frame the way his life was shaped (personal failure, future prospects, etc.). Despite the questions, Mejer Caso knows that life inevitably continues, and in the shadows of one living entity, we will no doubt find “families, people, gardeners. The living.”
Regardless of what certainty briefly appears, the bulk of the poems find themselves straddling the line between reality and the surreal. In the sectioned titled “Toward the Sunken Statues,” we see the speaker struggling to make sense of the images around her:
I have no sun in this world, no ocean. What can I do with all these daggers, heaped where the mountain used to be? Some piece of the story has left us shaking, as a great wind jingles the bangles on a frightful crown, has dragged the rain and waterfalls to a distant atmosphere. Water’s time is captive. In it, the groom clenches his eyes and takes in the night of another body, and their breath flickerlingly lights the cabin, the palm trees, the people drinking in silence.
Why are daggers heaped on the side of a mountain? Why exactly is this groom clenching his eyes? And those people drinking in silence, are they to be trusted? In much the same way that the speaker asked questions in “December 5 p.m., Edinburgh,” we find ourselves asking what will not readily be answered. We can comfortably assume that the groom is the speaker’s brother, and that even though his “words are still searching themselves, alone in the storm,” he has no choice but to face the uncertainty knocking on his door, and the speaker subsequently is left sorting through the ruin and putting the pieces back together as best as she can.
The speaker in Mejer Caso’s poems is a survivor of life, and therefore must settle in a new emotional and mental space:
I thought that surviving the storm would win you a spot in this world. Yeah, I know I was wrong, I even told you in a poem—remember?—that fragment from a now anchorless place.
It appears that the speaker bought into the notion that if her brother endured such a difficult situation, he would be welcomed fully into life. But ultimately, the outcome was already set in stone, and we see this when we traverse further into the poem and find the speaker acknowledging, through metaphor, the necessity of such a storm:
We found you on the platform, and though tragedy was imminent, I saw your face, the face of a deer, doe eyes. Outside it finally rained and soothed the long thirst in the sown fields, but a journey awaited.
The journey that Mejer Caso takes us on is at times concrete and at others it unravels the thread of logic and reality. But it is one that must be taken, and even if the speaker doesn’t have all or even any of her questions answered, then she at least has the reassurance that she, despite trekking the purgatorial expanse of not knowing, can come out alive on the other side.
A review of Edinburgh Notebook would be incomplete without mentioning the photographs throughout the collection, taken by Barry Shapiro, as well as Mejer Caso’s ekphrastic poems. We are witnesses to the scenes and the stories depicted unto them: an older woman on a bench, unaware of her destiny; hanging dresses in a room and the workers who made them possible; crosses in a rather empty field; and an unoccupied chairs and what it means to return to places “where nobody ever returns” (“Pedro: Two chairs and a Slide”). And there is the cover photo, which at the end of the book, Shapiro states was taken in a field near a New Mexican village. While New Mexico and Edinburgh could be further from each other culturally and geographically, the photo encapsulates what Mejer Caso has sought to convey: even though we are faced with loss, there will always be a space (photographs, book, etc.) where we can return to, process our grief, and most importantly reflect and remember. Mejer Caso has no doubt left us with a book that will live with us long after we have put it down.
Edinburgh Notebook, by Valerie Mejer Caso (translated by Michelle Gil-Montero). South Bend, Indiana: Action Books, March 2021. 158 pages. $20.00, paper.
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of five poetry collections, most recently The Valley (Sundress Publications, 2021). His debut essay collection Before the Earth Devours Us will be published by Split/Lip Press in late 2021. He is the Interviews Editor for the EcoTheo Review, an assistant poetry editor for AGNI, and a regular reviews contributor for Heavy Feather Review. He lives in Austin, Texas.