Digesting Grief: Krissy Kneen’s Eating My Grandmother: a grief cycle

Posted on March 21, 2017 by in Verity La Reviews

(edited by Robyn Cadwallader)

In Krissy Kneen’s 2009 memoir Affection, her grandmother Dragitsa Marusic (aka Lotty Kneen) was introduced as the family’s best storyteller, and as a person who did a lot of cooking. A woman whose precise cultural heritage remained mysterious even to her immediate family, Dragitsa could reliably be found in her kitchen preparing a ‘haphazard’ mix of Egyptian and European dishes – including ful medames, vegetables stuffed with rice, and hand-rolled gnocchi.

Steeped in stereotype as the trope may be, grandmothers continue to retain a reputation for being great cooks. So it’s meaningful (if confronting) to encounter the Kneen of Eating My Grandmother: a grief cycle literally eating particles of her grandmother’s ashes. From the opening section, ‘Prelude’:

I pick a grain of her, stolen from the urn
place it on my tongue.
Her body.
My blood.                          (4)

This act appears to be spontaneous — it could be interpreted as a moment of divine possession, which is appropriate given the obvious allusion to the Christian Eucharist. The practice of Holy Communion (i.e. the ritualistic consumption of bread and wine as symbols of the ‘body’ and ‘blood’ of Christ) itself is subject to interpretation — some Christians believe that Christ is literally present in the Eucharist, while others consider it to be only a symbolic re-enactment of the Last Supper. With regards to Kneen’s act of consumption, it would seem she is unsure of what, exactly, motivated her decision, and that she is using poetry as a tool to understand her own behaviour. There are moments that fixate on the literal — on page 8 she asks ‘What part of her have I secreted away?’, suggesting that she swallowed the ash so as to keep a physical part of her grandmother (‘Her hand?’, ‘Her legs?’) inside her own body. But as the book progresses, the act begins to reverberate with metaphysical significance. For instance, the lines ‘She is the rain coming / and the sand filling us up’ (p. 21) suggest that her grandmother’s spirit has merged with the elements – although whether this is directly connected to the ashes in Kneen’s stomach, is unclear.

While Affection voluptuously charts Kneen’s sexual past, Eating My Grandmother records her experience of grief in the months following her grandmother’s death. It is also, incidentally, Kneen’s first work of poetry. In her own words: ‘Poetry was like a new language I learned to speak in the bleak heart of grief. I had never written poetry before but suddenly the flow of verse was unstoppable’.[i]

Poetry is as much about words as it is about silence. On the page, this silence is registered as the white space that surrounds (and sometimes threatens to engulf) the lines and stanzas. A poem is so often about what isn’t said, and the crafting of poetry can feel more like erasure than creation.

It makes sense, then, that Kneen turned to verse while she was grieving. The abrupt line breaks that characterise Eating My Grandmother sever the flow of Kneen’s prose, creating the sense of a person trying to speak through their tears, of talking while taking in ragged gulps of breath:

I dig
a hole
for what remains.
A hollowed earth
to swallow
grit that might be bone or rock or salt.  (3)

Eating My Grandmother makes reference to some of the people and places that appeared in Affection, however a prior knowledge of Kneen’s personal history is not necessary to understand (or enjoy) this work, as the language glistens with lucidity. Lovers of poetic ambiguity might be frustrated by this, however the style suits its subject well because it gazes unflinchingly at the starkness of grief – demonstrating how it can be ugly, uncomfortable, and at times maddeningly unremarkable.

Which isn’t to say that Eating My Grandmother is unbeautiful. There is rawness, yes, but there is also musicality, warmth, and humour. The pleasurable assonance of ‘mire’, ‘silence’ and ‘drive’ in part viii of ‘Fugue’, for instance:

I want her storm to spill its wrath
to thunder down and sweep away.
Instead there are stodgy muffins
thick sugared bread.
My mouth is empty of her
my phone is empty of the messages
that might extract me from the mire.

We race the deluge
and it is nothing.

We wait in damp silence
And we drive.                   (31)

The darkness in this work is counterbalanced with playfulness and wit. Just like laughter at a funeral, the comedic moments in Eating My Grandmother are what make it so affecting. Kneen compares her grandmother’s ashes to cat litter/fish tank gravel — images that work to undermine the churchy seriousness that is so often adopted when people speak of death. Then there’s the line ‘sepulchral degustation’ (19), which leavens the horror of eating ashes by making it sound like something you might read on the menu of a contemptibly fashionable inner-city restaurant. Speaking of food:

My friend ate her placenta.
A piece of her child
fried with garlic, oregano, thyme.
The first one.

The second placenta was frozen
transferred to our freezer
beside the breasts of chicken and the leg of lamb.
She didn’t like the taste                                               (34)

Krissy Kneen. Photo credit: Anthony Mullins

The motif of eating reoccurs throughout, and we follow as those granules of ash travel through the digestive tract of the poem. Eating and sex are both acts of life — of propagation and survival. In part vii of ‘Fugue’, the two are combined in a series of stanzas that depict an act of lovemaking, followed by another course of ashes (which she swallows in the bathroom ‘with the skin still flushed’). She speaks of sex as an affirmation of life: ‘and only the promise of sex can wake the blood… I flare to life briefly, breathlessly, the drowned resurrected’ (p. 29). Kneen’s fusion of sex, death, and eating brings to mind the Ouroboros; the ancient symbol of a serpent eating its own tail, representing cyclicality and infinity.

However it’s the smaller, seemingly ordinary details in Eating My Grandmother that best capture the experience of grief, because they communicate that unnerving sense of the world just carrying on, as if nothing significant has happened, in the wake of the death of a loved one. The final section, ‘Cadenza’, opens with:

In Coles
in the picnic aisle
a packet falls.
Inside
there are plastic knives

The pointless sound
of nothing
hitting ground

is what breaks me.                        (85)

It’s an image that chimes, perhaps oddly, with a song lyric from the 2016 album ‘Skeleton Tree’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: ‘I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues’. It’s an image that is vulnerable and human – even artists still need to participate in the ordinary rituals of living – and it works to broaden a personal experience of grief out into something more universal. The supermarket might seem like an unlikely place to reflect on mortality, but then again, these large, well-lit spaces of anonymous congregation may well be just as suited to existential contemplation as any church.

Poetry is such an exciting medium because it facilitates discovery. Eating My Grandmother transcribes a mind attempting to extract sense from the apparent senselessness of death, scrutinising the minutia of everyday existence for clues. The last section of the book (‘Cadenza’) signifies that the grief cycle is near its end — but there is a sense that more could have been discovered over time. It will be intriguing to see where Kneen’s poetry ventures next.

 

[i] Media Release: Eating My Grandmother: a grief cycle, UQP Marketing & Publicity, 24 June 2015

Eating My Grandmother: a grief cycle
Krissy Kneen
University of Queensland Press, 2015
92 pages, $24.95

_______________________________________________________

Louise Carter’s
poetry has appeared in Best Australian Poems 2012 & 2015, Westerly, Seizure and Meanjin. She is a member of the Writing & Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University, where she is slowly undertaking a Doctor of Creative Arts.

The Biggest Love (Krissy Kneen)

Posted on April 4, 2011 by in Lies To Live By

No one could ease the pain he felt, had been feeling for too long now. She raised an eyebrow as he entered the kitchen, held her breath. She could smell the grief off him. Emotional pain like an aura captured by Kirlian photography. He wandered in a fug of it and Girl felt her throat tighten. She would not whine. He always misinterpreted her care for him as hunger. At her most empathetic moments he would open a can of meat and scoop it into her bowl. Sometimes at night he would let her climb onto his bed and curl up beside him. Sometimes he would bury his head in her neck and she could feel his whole body shake with the pain of it.

This had been happening for too long.

He sat in the chair he liked to sit in and she dragged herself closer with her toenails, sidling up along the linoleum till she could rest her chin on his foot. She breathed on his ankle. Each little puff a whispered secret. Your wife is gone. I am here. Your wife is gone. I am here. And as if he had heard and understood he reached down and touched her head and Girl closed her eyes and whined, knowing there was no way she could love something or someone more than this.

*

She had taken to easing her way into the bathroom. When his wife was alive he would shut the door completely. She would sit outside, and even her thigh pressed against the bathroom door would not budge it. Some mornings, on the weekend the wife would join him in the shower and girl would pause between breaths, listening for the little human sounds, the coos and giggles, the grunts. There was of course something not right about it. Her excitement was ludicrous. They were people. Naked, hairless, ridiculous. Once they left the bedroom door open and she crept in and sat by the bed. There was something tender about their little naked bodies entwined that way. Rolling like pups, and the mounting that occurred in the middle of it seemed a mimicry of adult love. The smell of them, hot and acid, off-putting at first, but she got used to it, became almost excited by it at one point, hunkered down onto the carpet and pushed against it in that way that felt best.

Since the death of the wife he had taken to leaving the bathroom door ajar. Girl wondered at first if this was a sign of hope that one day his wife might return from the grave and step into the shower beside him. Or perhaps he knew that Girl was there, her paws protruding onto the damp tiles, little hushed sounds at the back of her throat as she scrambled precious centimetres forward, quietly nosing the door a little wider.  Perhaps her presence was some sort of comfort.

*

The sound of the shower stopped suddenly.  He stepped out onto the bath mat. It was ludicrous.  She looked towards him, the little upward bounce of his penis.

Huge love. An ache.

She watched him stare at his own reflection in the mirror. Lost.  Girl shuffled closer.

Not lost.  He had her.  She knew exactly where they were.  Here.  In their bathroom, with the cold tiles and the fluffy bath mat that his wife had loved.

*

This in the night.

Girl, warm.  Freshly washed, smelling of sweet chemicals that humans seemed to like.  Him, pungent, the stale scotch sweat leaking from his armpits. His pyjamas unwashed for far too long, the yellow stain of his sweat on the back of them. Him with his arm draped around her shoulder.  Him with his face pressed against her collar.  This moment with him.  This shuffling back against him.  This contact, the hardness of him.  He shifted his hips once, twice. She held her breath.  This love.  This huge love. And his sob against her neck.

*

It grew warmer. She shed her winter coat.  He shed his clothes and moved about the house naked.  Staring at his reflection in the dark windows or the silent television screen as if he had discovered a stranger in his own home.  Mild surprise, concern, curiosity.  They lay together in his bed and sometimes it was an easy comfort.  Other times he grew agitated, pushed at her, ordered her to the foot of the bed, regretted his tone and fell on her with apologies.  Girl breathed through it.  She turned her rump towards him. Love, she thought, biggest love.

*

There was nothing to it when it came down to it. It was quick. It was nothing really.  Just a physical representation of the big love.  After it was done, he clung to the nape of her neck with his fists, shaking.  That was the nicest part.  She was reminded of her mother, a vague memory of being carried, the loose skin at her neck held tight, a comfort.

He put a mattress at the foot of the bed.  She understood.  He needed space from it, from her.  She sat up on her haunches and rested her chin on the end of the bed and watched him twitch and clasp his knees to his chest.  Sometimes at night he cried out in his sleep and then she would leap up onto the bed and lie with him.  It was summer, hot, but he had taken to wearing cotton pyjamas that stuck to his skin in damp patches.

“There,” he said, tired, barely awake, but raising his hand to stroke her chest regardless.  “Good Girl, good,  good Girl.”

And then Girl closed her eyes and abandoned herself to love.  The biggest  feeling of love that there ever could be and it almost tore the skin off her back with its ferocity.

* * *

–> You can also find ‘The Biggest love’ in Torpedo’s Greatest Hits.

ECSTATIC GIFTS:
an interview with Krissy Kneen

Posted on April 2, 2011 by in The Melbourne Review Interviews

ALEC PATRIC

Do women like sex? That’s the headline on a fashion magazine I saw this morning. I didn’t pick it up so I don’t know how they answered. I’m more interested in how you’d answer that question Krissy. These magazines project sexuality as a brand and yet maintain a flat faced model coyness that can ask the question of that headline. Your memoir, Affection, shows us sex as sustenance. Why would that headline still tantalise?

KRISSY KNEEN

It surprises me that people still have to ask that question. Do women like sex? It always surprises me to hear that some university aged women still haven’t experienced an orgasm.  And my response to that is always “give the girl a vibrator! Quickly!” Of course if a woman hasn’t experienced orgasm she is not going to enjoy sex. It distresses me to think of a grown woman not knowing the sheer physical joy of orgasm.  When you orgasm it is like a complete re-boot of your whole system.  Nothing else matters in the moment of orgasm and that kind of pure release is so important.  We also sometimes mistake sex for attractiveness. This is what advertising gifts us.  We speak of people as being sexy if they are pretty and this is missing the point.  Sexy is about the body experiencing or giving pleasure.  We are at our least pretty when we have an orgasm.  Our eyes roll back in our head, we stick our stomach out, we make a strange face. Seriously, it has nothing to do with how attractive we are.

I read a book called The Sex Diaries, by Bettina Arndt, where women wrote diaries about their sex life and mostly the result was that these middle aged married women just don’t want sex anymore — but I think she got it wrong.  All that book showed was that those women don’t want to have sex with their husbands.  It is true we get bored.  After many years of having sex with the same person it feels a bit like masturbating only without the scope of fantasy that keeps it fresh.   My take on it would be that of course women want sex but we also want variety in sex and therefore if we want to be monogamous, which is not really our natural state, we are going to have to introduce an element of play and experimentation. The only other solution is to have lots of (safe) sex with lots of people and don’t take it too seriously.

ALEC PATRIC

Anais Nin was one of the pioneers in this regard but she broke new artistic ground in a number of ways beyond the stories she’s famous for now. Her journals were her most immediate and lasting contribution. They are still vital and vivid, both for an understanding of what it means to be a writer, and how we remain alive to the body. It’s not only husbands that get boring. The ways our experiences can be revivified is perhaps her great literary gift. There are parallels that could be made between the creation of those diaries and your Furious Vaginas. Could you talk about how this project came about, how it developed and how it eventually culminated into Affection.

KRISSY KNEEN

My friend Christopher Currie is my writing companion. We often sit together at a cafe table working on our separate projects, keeping each other honest and minding each other’s laptops while we go to the toilet.  When Christopher told me he was going to start a daily blog called Furious Horses.  I felt a bit left behind.  He was going to write a new short story every day and post it on the blog. I hadn’t really committed to the idea of writing memoir yet.  I had played around with writing a memoir for young adults, expressing how kids and teenagers are sexual beings.  The project had stalled and I had all but given up on it.  When Furious Horses had been operating for a week, I decided to start Furious Vaginas.  It was motivated by jealousy. I thought of the idea while I was in the movies and told my husband about it as the credits rolled.  He told me that I absolutely should not do it and of course the idea that it was a banned activity only made it worse.  The thing with Furvag is that I wrote many of the posts late at night, and often after a large amount of alcohol.  Because of this I was at my most honest and most vulnerable.  I suffer from bouts of depression and I’m pretty sure you can judge my mood at the time by looking back at those posts. The posts written when I was most vulnerable are actually the most revealing and often made it into the memoir.  When I had some interest from Text to publish the memoir I went back and printed off all the blog posts.  I approached the writing of the memoir as I would making a documentary. I took my life and cut it up and assembled it into a good structure.  It is odd that people are so cagey about their sex life.  I kind of understand.  My husband refused to let me mention anything about my sex with him and therefore I had to respect his wishes.  I think Nin was treading on some dangerous territory talking about her husband as she did in her diaries.

ALEC PATRIC

Jane Smiley modeled her novel, Ten Days in the Hills on the Decameron. When I think of a novel that successfully uses great swathes of explicit sex, hers is the first book that comes to mind. More often, literary fucking feels gratuitous even when titillating. Worse still when it feels like the author’s masturbatory fantasies ejaculated onto paper. If it’s not about the author as we have in a memoir, a novel’s sex scenes easily become generic, no matter how descriptive or ‘shocking’. Jane Smiley, in talking about Ten Days in the Hills, said she made sure that every sex scene arose from individual character and was an intimate expression of each perspective. What makes a sex scene work for you? Conversely, are there writers that make you cringe?

KRISSY KNEEN

I haven’t read the Jane Smiley but now I will. I always think surprise is the key to success.  We all get bored with sex if it is dished up the same way every time, the trick is to use props ie: the real world, what is happening outside the sex, how does that impact on it. I love to make ordinary things extraordinary in the telling. I also like the use of humour because sex is ultimately quite funny. You can feel when you are writing good sex, you kind of get dragged along with the scene and find yourself becoming aroused. If you aren’t feeling it then the audience won’t be feeling it. I have abandoned many a bad sex scene and I am sure I will write many more.

ALEC PATRIC

You mentioned writing Y/A. What does a Krissy Kneen sex book for kids look like? Is there a way you’d approach it differently? How might children be educated about their sexuality better?

KRISSY KNEEN

Yes I did have a dream of writing a sexy YA. It wasn’t really about educating kids because kids find out about that stuff in their own ways. I am not sure how-to sex books work for that market.  What I do know is that some kids and most teenagers experience very powerful sexual feelings and will seek out books with titillating content to devour covertly.  How else can you explain the run-away success of VC Andrews Flowers In The Attic?  I wanted (maybe still want) to write a book with teenagers as the protagonists that celebrates sexuality not in it’s most boring mums-and-dadsy kind of way, but that is unashamedly broad in its scope, without any judgement or cautionary tale.  I just naturally write about safe sex because I believe very much in practicing that, so this wouldn’t be something that promotes risky sexual behaviour. This would be a celebration of all our multi-sexualities, something to assure young readers that it is OK to be hetro, bi or gay and you don’t have to box yourself in to one sexuality. Everything is OK to try as long as you are safe and respectful and try really hard not to hurt anyone else. It would also show kids that despite our best efforts, becoming intimate with each other does often cause emotional damage even when you are trying really hard, someone often gets hurt. It would have fallible human characters who were not the prettiest kids in the class but that who were just trying to enjoy their sexuality. At the end of writing this book no publisher would touch it of course, because the school’s market is the major force in YA publishing and no school is going to put this book in their library.

ALEC PATRIC

A girl in her early teens walked into my bookstore recently to buy a novel I felt uncomfortable selling her. I sold it to her without comment, of course. She walked away with a Popular Penguin at the pocket money price of $9.95. It’s a long way from the notorious, contraband days for Lolita. I don’t know if Nabakov spent much time thinking about girls around the age of 12 year old Dolores Haze reading his tale of middle-aged lust and obsession. As a bookseller yourself, and as a writer and reader, I’m wondering how you negotiate the literary genius with the paedophilia of Lolita.

KRISSY KNEEN

Lolita is one of my favourite books.  I love the humour in it, but Nabokov does not shy away from the content either. He manages somehow to make you uncomfortable about the lust for a minor whilst also making you laugh along with Humbert – becoming Humbert in a way.  I think it is important to always challenge yourself as a writer, never shying away from the things you find most difficult. I also think that is what you should do as a reader.  I am all for reading ‘junk food’ occasionally as a fine alternative for mindless TV, but I also think you should read stuff that takes you out of your safe comfort zone.  I don’t think reading Lolita will hurt that teenaged girl at all. I remember a time when my sister in her early teens read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and for a while she turned into a monster because of it.  I was younger and began to read the same book to find out what had affected her so badly and the book just unsettled me.  I had been reading Orwell myself and Rand seemed just the polar opposite.  What only encouraged my sister into bad behaviour made me run with open arms back to my beloved Orwell. I think books don’t hurt us, but they help us articulate what we already believe and if they are really good they sometimes show us things we didn’t understand.  I think that 12 year old girl will find things in Lolita to love or to rage against and then if she reads it later in life for a second time she will probably see the humour which I missed when I read it at too young an age.

ALEC PATRIC

Writer’s reveal themselves. That’s a basic principle of what we do. We’re all encouraged to become as naked as possible for our readers. Our audience demands the kind of magnified detail that would make a seasoned porn star blush or wilt. When we’re writing fiction though, there’s the thinnest of curtains hanging behind us, as the stage is revealed. There’s a performance and a narrative, and our exposure is understood to be ‘fiction’ however true it is otherwise. It seems there’s no curtain with a memoir like Affection. It’s not a character exposing themselves–> it’s Krissy Kneen. That kind of courage takes my breath away actually, when I really consider how vulnerable you made yourself. Was it difficult? All I can sense from your actual work is a powerful sense of release and liberation. How true is that? What were your challenges in finding that kind of courage?

KRISSY KNEEN

Krissy Kneen is not a character?  I thought about her as a character.  Sure the situations and scenes are true and actually happened to me, but as a person I am a lot more complicated than the Krissy in the book.  By narrowing it down to just the stuff about sex and my relationship to sex I could leave out many, many facets of myself.  I can actually be terribly boring at times and really anxious.  I know there is a bit of anxiousness in the book but in real life sometimes I can angst about getting an assignment in on time or how awfully I have constructed a book, or how I made a spelling error in a press release, for hours or even days.  I am so glad that the medium of writing allows you to leave out bits.  I have always found talk about sex really easy.  If I were to write a brave book that makes me vulnerable it would probably be about my relationship to my family because that is the hardest part and I feel like I glossed over that in the book.  In my fiction I can be much more revealing. Sometimes I think that fiction is closer to the stuff we all keep hidden. In fiction a character can be mean in exactly the way I have been mean at one time or another and although I could never reveal that in memoir I can put it into a story.  Having said that, I think I am pretty recognisable from Affection.  I did try not to spare myself because sometimes I was just naively dumb back then and that makes for funny scenes. I like a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously so I mined my life for some of the moments that made me seem absurd and ridiculous because we all are, particularly when we are young. Still, the sex stuff has always been easy for me. Sex is a language I understand. Relationships? Not so much.