(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.
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:
for what remains.
A hollowed earth
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)
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 the picnic aisle
a packet falls.
there are plastic knives
The pointless sound
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
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.